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Viewpoint / There has never been a time when people need a holiday more

THE UNIQUE attributes which make Shetland such a wonderful and welcoming visitor destination – its breathtaking scenery, magical wildlife, stunning coastline, fresh local food and drink and friendly locals – are what will undoubtedly again attract people to these islands when tourism reopens on 26 April, plus the post-Covid attractions of fresh air, lack of crowds and outdoor activities such as walking and cycling, writes Steve Mathieson, VisitScotland’s development manager.

VisitScotland’s development manager Steve Mathieson. Photo: VisitScotland

The two national lockdowns have reinforced the importance of the tourism and events sectors to Shetland – both in terms of the local economy and wellness. The tourism industry has suffered massively during the pandemic with, sadly, some businesses closing their doors and likely not reopening.

Arguably, there has never been a time when people need a holiday more than now and visiting new places can give a positive boost to your mental health and general wellbeing.

However, we won’t just push a button and tourism will recover – we’ve had a year of very little investment, job losses and business closures – it will take time and significant investment to get us back to a thriving industry. But with the right support, tourism and events can lead the economic recovery and boost inward investment where it’s needed most.

I’d like to applaud the tourism industry in Shetland for stepping up and working within the ever-changing restrictions to create a safe and welcoming environment. Our industry here is keen to demonstrate that they are ‘Good to Go’, ready to reopen and are clean, welcoming and, most importantly, safe places to visit.

Our iCentre in Lerwick will also reopen on 26 April, when there will be an easing of travel restrictions from the mainland to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles and work is going on behind the scenes getting it prepared to welcome back the visitors and to provide inspiration and information on the plethora of things to see and do in Shetland.

The lockdown period has given us time to reflect and focus on the need to prioritise rebuilding the visitor economy in a responsible way, with the tourism industry and communities working together to start that reopening process and ensuring that supply can meet demand.

With the assistance of Shetland Islands Council, I recently approached all the local community councils and am meeting with representatives of all the areas of Shetland and the various tourism sectors to discuss individual and collective community attitudes to welcoming visitors here once more.

VisitScotland recently launched a marketing campaign with the message for people to start planning their holidays now, but also urging visitors to be responsible, so that we can preserve the country’s natural beauty for future generations and work with communities to bring the benefits of tourism to everyone.

Balance is key, so we want to make sure we are helping tourism businesses to survive and recover, while building toward a sustainable future. Shetland tourism has been devastated over the past year – we have tried to ensure that funding support has been made available to as many tourism businesses as possible and now this is one of the first steps in our rebuilding process.

Natural filter

Shetland offers the ‘post-Covid attractions of fresh air, lack of crowds and outdoor activities such as walking and cycling’. Photo: Shetland News

As has always been the case, as islands we have a natural filter for visitors getting here through our transport links, and both NorthLink and Loganair’s strict rules and regulations have contributed to the low rates of Covid-19 we’ve experienced in Shetland.

Travellers will still have to abide by those rules for the foreseeable future, though they will undoubtedly change over time. That transport filter will also ensure that Shetland will not be subject to the issues experienced in some parts of the mainland which have found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of tourists eager to hit the road when restrictions lift.

Many accommodation providers, cafes and attractions are already open in Shetland, which will assist in the transition to welcoming visitors once again. Shetland has always had a regular flow-through of workers due to the industries based here such as oil and gas, fishing and aquaculture, so it’s not a massive step from where we are now to where we are going.

Although some events will remain online this year, such as the Shetland Food and Drink Festival and Shetland Wool Week, it has been encouraging to see a degree of normality slowly coming back, for example the return of the Shetland BBC series film crew to Lerwick and other locations these last few weeks.

As the national tourism organisation, VisitScotland has supported businesses since the beginning of the pandemic and will continue to focus on the recovery of the industry, building a destination and visitor experience which allows tourism and events to flourish now and in the future. We’ll continue to work with, and support, businesses to ensure we rebuild this vital part of Scotland’s economy.

Tourism is a force for good – creating economic and social value in every corner of Scotland and enhancing the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it. Tourism makes this country richer, economically and socially, and without it, Shetland would be a much poorer place.