As lockdown restrictions gradually begin to ease in Scotland, community engagement is vital if we are to successfully navigate our way through the COVID-19 crisis with positivity for the future.
The need to listen – to tourism businesses and the voices from the communities in which they exist – has never been greater, to ensure we strike the right balance.
These conversations are already happening in the Highlands. As well as supporting its member businesses with advice and guidance during this difficult time, Destination Management Organisation (DMO) SkyeConnect is also consulting with local residents in communities on Skye and neighbouring areas.
They want to gauge the community’s feelings, fears, attitudes and opinions on how we can ‘reset’ tourism, to allow communities and visitors to live in harmony as we begin to safely welcome tourists again.
The island has been hit particularly hard during the crisis, following the deaths of a number of residents within the Home Farm care home in Portree. Locals are understandably concerned about how a sudden influx of visitors arriving in Skye – potentially bringing the virus with them – might affect their families, livelihoods and way of life again.
Following an initial discussion with local elected representatives, SkyeConnect is speaking to local community trusts, community councils and relevant local organisations to build a picture of how the tourism landscape may need to adapt and change, how the ‘new normal’ might look and to build a plan to successfully take this forward. Their overriding concern is the health and wellbeing of residents and visitors alike.
They're listening and feeding back concerns surrounding issues such as the reopening of public toilets and car parks, both in rural and urban areas. SkyeConnect is hoping to encourage locals to support local accommodation providers along with activities, attractions and experiences up and down the island, in the same way those local businesses have helped them during lockdown - for example, hotels which have delivered local takeaways or supported vulnerable members of the community with hot meals.
SkyeConnect Chair, Dave Till, cannot over-estimate the importance of community engagement during the easing of lockdown.
The DMO is examining the ways the ‘stay local’ message can be shared and exploring how a local campaign to raise awareness of this might look, as well as gauging community sentiment about it.
This is a process they're just beginning and there will no doubt be conflicting opinions – many residents understand the real need for tourism businesses to kick start again as soon as possible but this is tempered by the fears of the virus returning with visitors.
SkyeConnect is monitoring local concerns as they arise and is seeking to provide support, guidance and reassurance to people, as well as encouraging respectful and responsible visitor behaviour.
Tourism is more than a holiday experience, particularly in Skye as it sustains and supports the rural economy. Visitors – whether they are on a day trip or a longer holiday - bring great benefits to the area.
SkyeConnect understands the importance of restarting the tourism industry as soon as possible, but also appreciates the need to work with the communities to ensure the island’s residents and its visitors can live in harmony.
As an organisation, we are used to communicating Skye’s message to Scotland, the UK and the rest of the world. However, during COVID-19 our role has had to change somewhat, and our communication has become much more inward-facing.
Throughout the crisis, we have surveyed industry sectors, issued regular newsletters, updates and other communications. We have shared information and experiences through the Skyetime Podcast.
We are planning a series of community engagement events to communicate the guidance for safe operation of hospitality businesses once lockdown is eased. We are about to launch a new website and allied communication which resets the tourism offer on Skye and drives visitors to a more sustainable and experiential stay on our island. This is a new beginning and the directors of SkyeConnect are working tirelessly to restart the economy in a responsible manner.