Hotels are poised for a “stepped” reopening in Scotland once lockdown restrictions are eased, a sector expert has said.

Roland Smyth, head of the Scottish hotels and leisure division at law firm CMS, said the reintroduction of tourism is likely to come in a two-staged format focusing initially on UK visitors on staycations.

Hotels may also open with limited services and facilities, possibly providing just accommodation at first with food and drink facilities being phased in later.

Mr Smyth’s comments come as the UK prepares for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on the road map for coming out of lockdown on Sunday while First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned of changing lockdown restrictions prematurely.

He said the sector already faced meeting its own high bar after “2019 was another in a long line of good years for the Scottish hotels industry”, adding: “Maintaining occupancy rates in 2020 was always going to be a challenge, but Covid-19 and the restrictions that have come with it have hit the sector incredibly hard.

“From the hotels industry’s perspective, just as with the rest of the wider economy, the pace of recovery will be linked to how quickly the current restrictions can safely be lifted and how quickly we’re able to get back to a more normal position.”

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He said: “As restrictions are lifted and travel starts to happen, there is probably going to be a two-staged recovery. First will come internal travel within the UK. That will develop more quickly and more strongly than international tourism and business travel. We could see a situation where people are able to travel within the UK but are still discouraged from travelling abroad.

“So the key for the hotels industry in Scotland in 2020 will be to focus on domestic tourism - what is often called the staycations market.

“There could be quite strong demand for staycations depending on how quickly restrictions are lifted.

“The chief executive of VisitScotland, Malcolm Roughead, said on Thursday that, although it’s hard to put timescales on recovery, the organisation hope to have a domestic market re-emerging in the autumn if Scotland follows the patterns of other countries, which are further ahead of the crisis than us.

“However, how quickly hotels will actually open up as government guidance is relaxed is an interesting question."

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Mr Smyth said: “I think we could see stepped reopening of Scotland’s hotel sector in 2020 depending on how quickly restrictions are lifted. If sufficient guest demand doesn’t come through immediately then, for example, if a brand has a number of hotels in one location, only one or two of those hotels might open to start with, rather than all of them opening their doors at once.

“We may also see hotels partly opening. A hotel might open without its food and drink facilities perhaps, or could open on a floor-by-floor basis until trading becomes stronger.”

Mr Smyth added: "When will the hotels sector get back to 2019 levels? Knight Frank have been quite bullish about recovery prospects for the UK hotel sector.

"Their analysis has been predicated on the lockdown ending by the end of June. They are projecting that Edinburgh and London, which have traditionally had resilient hotel sectors, will be back to good health by the end of 2021. Colliers similarly expect full recovery in the hotels sector towards the end of 2021, with a return to 2019 levels expected in 2022."

He said: “Travellers have historically tended to have a pragmatic attitude to risk. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, many predicted international travel would be affected, but we actually saw a relatively quick V-shaped recovery.

“I personally think we are unlikely to see a V-shaped recovery this time round. Instead, I anticipate that we’ll see a ‘reverse tick’: the sharp decline we’ve already experienced followed by a steady recovery as people become more confident in travelling domestically and then internationally.”

He said ongoing backing is critical across the hotel and food and beverage sectors.

“The immediate crisis for restaurant occupiers as the UK went into lockdown was largely averted by government action, but there is still a long term issue for the F&B sector. The government support has not been a complete panacea and there is a risk it could be one of the last sectors to reopen in a meaningful way.

“Continuing government assistance to the sector over the coming months will be vital.”