By Gordon Morrison

The pandemic has impacted Scottish tourism like a major-magnitude earthquake. It has shaken the industry to its core, causing seismic damage to its every cornerstone.

Undoubtedly, among the worst hit have been our visitor attractions. The devastating effect Covid-19 continues to have on them cannot be overstated. It’s no exaggeration to say our once-thriving sector has been brought to its knees and the challenges it faces are considerable.

Recent research undertaken by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) and the Moffat Centre for Travel & Tourism has highlighted the vulnerable position our sector is in. The results make for grim reading, with very few attractions anticipating any kind of significant recovery.

Our research reveals that, although the majority of sites have now reopened, it’s not viable for a great many to open fully. Two-thirds have been forced to reduce opening times or limit their facilities to cut costs.

Continuing restrictions of two-metre physical distancing and the fact that we’re unlikely to see any substantial return of international visitors this year are the major obstacles preventing our sector from getting back to operating at an economically sustainable level. 54% of attractions are either being forced to remain closed due to capacity-prohibiting restrictions, or are losing money whilst open.

On top of this, one in five sites expects to see their turnover decrease by more than 50% as a result of the lack of high-spending international visitors. Overall, more than one in eight attractions don’t believe they’ll be able to reopen at all this year, unless we see further changes to restrictions.

The fact is, the longer restrictions continue, the more difficult it will be for our sector to recover. Fixed costs at attractions are very high, higher than most other sectors within tourism. Our key money-making window – normally March to October – is also relatively small. If we endure another main season during which restrictions prevent us operating viably, the consequences will be dire.

Last year’s visitor numbers fell by such an extent that it was hard to comprehend them. Overall, they were almost 34 million down on 2019, a drop of more than 63%.

With much of the sector closed for the majority of the last 14 months, all cash reserves are completely depleted; there’s nothing left to take hundreds of our most beloved cultural venues through another difficult year. Further financial support for the sector is therefore going to be vital, particularly if we are still subject to prohibitive restrictions in the months ahead. It’s essential that the Scottish and UK Governments do not give up now on support for the sector.

In terms of the restrictions, I fully accept that we cannot just throw our doors open and have a free-for-all. Ongoing care and consideration must be given to the safety of our visitors and our staff. Indeed, ensuring their protection is something attractions have an outstanding record of. Our stringent safety protocols have been recognised by the Scottish Government as being exemplary, with a robust, responsible approach taken to ensure on-site safety, including a raft of rigorously-controlled measures such as timed ticketing, one-way routes and enhanced cleaning procedures.

We do however, urgently need to see restrictions changed to allow our sector to be able to operate at a sustainable level. For example, ASVA has been making a strong case for physical distancing to be reduced to one-metre at attractions, bringing our sector in line with the hospitality industry. It’s completely illogical that under the current restrictions, visitors can sit in a museum café a metre apart without face coverings but then have to ensure they maintain two-metre distancing as they tour the rest of venue whilst wearing masks.

On a more positive note, attractions that have reopened are, of course, delighted to be again welcoming visitors, whom they report – very encouragingly – are extremely positive about their on-site experiences. Things have, however, got off to a slow start, with low visitor numbers across the board, particularly at indoor attractions.

Whilst we expect travel restrictions within and to the UK to continue to ease, we’re unlikely to see any discernible return of international tourism until well into next year. That means our domestic market is now more crucial than ever.

It’s never been more important to get behind our attractions – which are so integral and important to our culture, heritage and communities. I’d urge everyone to play their part in supporting their survival and recovery.

There has genuinely never been a better time for the people of Scotland to enjoy our rich wealth of world-class attractions. Without the usual hustle and bustle of crowds, you are sure to enjoy a uniquely special, more personalised experience. And of course, the warmest and safest of welcomes awaits you.

Gordon Morrison is the chief executive of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions.