‘Eerie’ atmosphere on an island without tourists

May 1, 2020
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Sligachan Hotel usually caters for hillwalkers, families and tourists

At this time of year the Sligachan Hotel, with its backdrop of Skye’s Red and Black Cuillin hills, should be “buzzing”.

The hotel is usually a hub for hillwalkers and tourists on an island where visitor numbers have boomed in recent years.

But Deirdre Curley, who runs the Sligachan Hotel with her husband Gary, says there is now an “eerie” atmosphere.

Deirdre is the fourth generation of her family to run the business.

“The hotel has been in my family for more than 100 years, through two world wars, but this is a completely new scenario we are dealing with,” she says.

“The business has never seen anything like this before.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Quiraing was one of the attractions for visitors

She said the hotel would normally be fully booked until the end of the season.

The number of visitors flocking to the islands to see landmarks such as the Fairy Pools, The Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr have grown dramatically over the last decade.

The number of tourists had increased to an estimated 500,000 a year, putting pressure on some of the local infrastructure and leading to fresh investment in the car parks at the main attractions.

However, Covid-19 has changed everything for the Curleys and the other businesses which rely on those visitors.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tourist numbers had been booming on the island in recent years

The first signs of trouble emerged following outbreaks of the coronavirus in continental Europe.

Gary said they started to notice an impact in late February when Italian and Spanish tourists started to cancel their bookings.

“The number of cancellations became quite overwhelming,” he said.

“It gave us a powerful sense of the seriousness of the situation.”

Image copyright Sligachan Hotel
Image caption Deirdre and Gary Curley run the Sligachan Hotel

By the middle of March, the Curleys decided to close the hotel once their remaining guests had checked out.

In the weeks since then, the family business has been dealing with cancelled bookings and paying refunds.

Booking websites have passed the cost of refunds on to the hotel, but the business has not received any payout from its insurers.

In addition, it does not qualify for support from the Small Business Grant Fund because its rateable value is above £51,000.

“We are still haemorrhaging money on future bookings,” says Gary, who wants to see government support for the business and others like it on the island.

“We need the support. We were the first businesses to close and will be the last to be allowed to reopen.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tourists’ cars parked at the Quiraing in 2017…
Image copyright Alasdair Macleod
Image caption … but last week only one car could be seen

Over the course of a year, the Sligachan Hotel and its Seamus’ Bar provides work for 30 people.

The Curleys have furloughed more than 20 staff, while a couple of seasonal workers from the Czech Republic were able to find farming jobs near Edinburgh.

Deirdre says there is a strange atmosphere at the hotel without its staff and guests.

She said life on the island was “quite eerie”.

“But you still feel lucky to have grown up on this incredibly beautiful island,” she said.

“My mum said it feels like how Skye was back in the 1960s, before it changed into something completely different in recent times.”

Image copyright Staffin Community Trust
Image caption The Storr, a dramatic rocky landscape, usually attracts thousands of visitors…
Image copyright Staffin Community Trust
Image caption … but the roads are now deserted

While Skye currently has a feel of bygone times, Gary says it is hard to think about what the future will hold for the island.

“The mountains and the Highland hospitality that we are famous for, they are not going anywhere,” he says.

But he warns that the business landscape could change on the island if those in the tourism sector are unable to survive the crisis.

Hugh Ross, of the Staffin Community Trust, agreed that the island was “remarkably quiet” without the tourists.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Fairy Pools was another of the island’s top visitor attractions

The community, in the north east of Skye, has a resident population of just under 600 people.

“Like other west Highland communities, the absence of visitors is having a huge impact on tourism-related businesses in Staffin,” he said.

However, he said the hard work of the islanders had needed to continue during the lockdown.

“Crofters are busy with lambing, staff in our shops are working hard to ensure food is available, and home carers and volunteers are supporting our vulnerable residents,” he added.

All pictures are copyrighted.

Read more: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-52415316