SCOTTISH tourism businesses are continuing to operate at well below usual levels, despite the easing of coronavirus restrictions, a new survey of hotels, restaurants, pubs and cafes has found.

And companies in the sector are facing a recruitment crisis sparked by Brexit and the fall-out from the pandemic.

As the industry pins its hopes on trading levels recovering over the key summer season, a survey carried out by the Scottish Tourism Alliance has found that occupancy was sitting at below 20% for May, June and July at nearly half of accommodation providers (41% to 45%). In Scotland's cities, 94% of hotels reported occupancy levels of below 50% in May. The proportion forecasting occupancy of under 50% rises to 98% in June, before easing to 87% in July.

Meanwhile, some 38% of respondents said food and drink takings we running at below 20% of pre-pandemic levels.

The STA declared the findings signal that suggestions of a “staycation” boom in Scotland this summer are wide of the mark, though hopes were lifted yesterday when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed a further easing of coronavirus restrictions for most of the country from May 17. That will pave the way for hotels and pubs to begin serving alcohol in indoor areas again.

All of mainland Scotland will move into level two with the possible exception of Moray, due to an outbreak of the Indian variant of coronavirus. The Scottish islands will move into level one, apart from the Isle of Skye as it is connected to the mainland by bridge.

The STA, which canvassed the views of 271 business from May 3 to May 7, said its survey shows that the industry has had an “extremely slow start” since reopening. It declared that the outlook of businesses was at odds with the impression in some media reports of a “staycation boom”. Occupancy is sitting at between 12% and 15% at more than 60% of accommodation providers during what should be the height of Scotland’s tourism season.

Marc Crothall, chief executive of the STA, said the findings underline the scale of the challenge facing the tourism industry as it fights back from the impact of coronavirus, and highlighted the damage being done by the continuing absence of overseas visitors to Scotland. Stating that the industry faces a “long haul” to recovery, Mr Crothall told The Herald: “The perceived staycation boom… is just not there. Hopefully, today’s announcements will provide that extra bit of confidence that people want to hear to make these commitments and start booking. It is worrying.”

Research previously carried out by the STA revealed that in 2019, 43% of overnight spend came from international visitors, despite accounting for 25% of the tourist mix. Now, in light of continuing restrictions on air travel, it said there would need to be an additional seven million domestic overnight stays to make up for the shortfall created by the dearth of inbound tourists, based on average domestic spend.

With only 12 countries on the UK’s “green list” for international travel so far, and none of those among the biggest sources of overseas visitors to Scotland, Mr Crothall said: “That is a really tall order. We have seen quite a strong lean towards camping and that sort of outdoor activity – it is not being spent in commercial, serviced accommodation as much as it was.”

He added that many guests welcomed by hotels this summer will have originally booked last year, with the money paid having already been used by businesses to stay help them afloat during lockdown.

Meanwhile, the STA survey underlined the struggle hotels, restaurants and bars in Scotland are facing to recruit staff. The end of freedom of movement between the UK and European Union, students being forced to stay at home and workers turning to other sources of employment during lockdown were cited as 89% of respondents said they had between one and 10 vacancies.

Three businesses each have more than 51 vacancies at present. Recent reports suggested that Gleneagles currently has 240 vacancies, while the Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels has openings for 100 staff. Businesses are facing a particular shortage of chefs and frontline roles in areas such as housekeeping food and beverage.

Stephen Leckie, chief executive of Crieff Hydro, said: “The challenge of summertime is staffing. We have forgotten all about Brexit and the freedom of movement of people. Our staff aren’t coming back in droves.”

Some former hospitality workers have chosen to pursue alternative careers during the pandemic, while students have been unavailable for part-time work because they have stayed at home during term time, Mr Leckie added.