WITH temperatures consistently above 20 degrees and the sun almost perpetually out, holidaying at home has never been so good for those who managed to get away in recent days.

For the second year in a row, our family took the staycation route and were not disappointed. This time, Dornoch and Deeside were on the itinerary, following memorable visits to the Isle of Skye and the Orkney Islands last year.

Dornoch and Deeside are wonderful places to visit at any time, as indeed are Skye and Orkney, but this year there was added sparkle thanks to one of those blessed heatwaves that periodically hit these shores.

From a tourism industry perspective, all the good things the sector has to offer were richly abundant. The accommodation was of a high standard, the amenities varied and plentiful, and the list of things to do seemingly endless. When the sun shines and the temperatures are high, it seems almost everything is possible in Scotland. Even swimming in the North Sea was a pleasure.

Looking in from the outside, then, it could be assumed everything in the tourism garden is rosy. But peel back the veneer and one finds an industry under extreme pressure.

Having been forced to stay closed for large chunks of the last 16 months because of lockdown, it is obviously a huge relief that hotels, caravan parks, camping sites, golf courses and visitor attractions, not to mention pubs, bars and restaurants, are trading pretty much freely again.

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The fallout from those months of lockdown cannot be underestimated, be it on business balance sheets or on the mental health of those who earn their living from tourism. For those who enjoy working in the industry and connecting with the public in their jobs, the days of lockdown must have seemed like torture.

However, just because the doors are open and Scots are holidaying in their homeland as never before does not mean everything is normal. The tourism industry is in the grip of an acute staff shortage and it is severely hampering its ability to capitalise on the limited summer trading window, and make up for the long months it was forced to close.

It seems odd when there remain longstanding fears about unemployment that tourism is struggling for staff. But there are very peculiar factors at work in these strange pandemic times.

As we are now seeing in critical sectors of the economy, the “pingdemic” has resulted in millions of people – in sectors such as retail, haulage, hospitality and tourism – being unable to work because of self-isolation.

The strain is such that fears of empty supermarket shelves have surfaced again, simply because there are not enough staff to work in the food supply chain. A shortage of HGV drivers has been causing particular difficulties.

Government ministers have sought to ease the pressure by exempting workers in certain essential sectors from the requirement to self-isolate, if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positively for Covid-19 (if they are double-vaccinated and test negatively). The sectors include health and social care, transport, and food supply – but as yet not tourism and hospitality.

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Coming on top of existing staff shortages sparked by Brexit, it means businesses in tourism and hospitality are having to restrict trading hours and days during their peak season.

And the situation is even worse for tourism attractions and small accommodation providers such as hostels because of ongoing social distancing rules, which limit the number of visitors they can accommodate.

“I was in Inverness a few weeks back and a lot of the guest houses and B&Bs were still closed,” Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance told The Herald. “There are still limitations on what can be done.

“We have seen since then Auchrannie (on Arran) having to shut for nine days [and] the Pierhouse (Hotel) in Appin closed for 10 days. Gleneagles had, at one point, 15 chefs out in isolation, so had to remove some of the services that were offered in the hotel.”

Mr Crothall said tourism businesses are doing the “responsible” thing by limiting their trading hours.

Operators know the summer window is limited, and can’t be sure how good the autumn season will be, given it is unclear when foreign tourists will return to Scotland in significant numbers. But the last thing they want to do is risk staff burnout or offer a sub-standard service because employees are so stretched.

“If you have flogged-to-death staff working ridiculous hours then something will slip,” Mr Crothall said.

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“And the owners have to have a break. But they need to get the additional revenue in to be able to start paying a lot of the debt they have taken on.”

He added: “Even businesses that are trading well now, they will only be trading for three months before they get to the winter again. There is a lot of lost time and lost revenue.”

What, then, can be done to ease this staffing crisis?

Strenuous efforts have been made through various campaigns to highlight employment opportunities across the tourism and hospitality industry, which will hopefully begin to bear fruit.

But there is no doubt that some leeway on the rules around self-isolation would help. There is something inherently unfair about businesses having to stay closed or limit their trading hours when the demand is clearly there, as is now being witnessed up and down the country, because of enforced staff absences.

Indeed, just as there is a clear case for special treatment to safeguard the food supply and health sectors, it can be argued that protecting tourism businesses is critical to employment and the economy of the areas they serve.

Meantime, industry campaigners continue to make the case for special visas for the hospitality sector that would reduce the cost of bringing in staff from EU countries, following the exodus caused by Brexit and the pandemic.

Staff shortages, though, are just part of the challenge. The ever-shifting landscape around international air travel means there is no clear sense of when Scotland will again be able to welcome visitors from overseas in significant numbers, though there was some welcome movement last night. From Monday, fully vaccinated travellers from the US and amber-list nations in the EU will no longer have to quarantine when they arrive in Scotland and England.

“We will not survive on domestic [tourism] alone,” Mr Crothall warned. “It is a short window.”