Below is the text of the speech made by Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, in the House of Commons 12 May 2020.
Greetings from the far north of Scotland. I want to talk about tourism in the highlands.
Visitors and tourists from the UK and overseas are always very welcome in this most beautiful part of the UK, and our hospitality and tourism industry is critical to the local economy. It is an industry that is sustainable in the long term, and which, most importantly, provides local jobs for local people. As long as we have a high-quality tourism product, by which I mean landscape, culture, top-quality food and drink—that sort of thing—we can attract tourists to come back again and again to a truly special part of the world. But we are in the midst of the current pandemic. People leaving home and moving about simply increases the risk of the disease being spread. Many in the highlands and many of my constituents are concerned that visitors will look at the map of where the virus is most common and think, “Oh well, the highlands looks pretty free. Let’s go there.” The trouble is that in the highlands, health services are at best limited. The NHS staff and care workers are doing a fantastic job, but they work with limited resources and that is why we have taken the lockdown rules so seriously in the highlands. That is why we have taken every precaution to look after one another and that is why we continue to “stay home, safe lives and save the NHS”.
The health and safety of my constituents is my greatest concern during this difficult period, so I say this to potential visitors. In normal times you would be really, really welcome, but right now please stay in your usual homes, wherever they may be. Please, please wait until the medical advice says that the risk of you spreading the virus to my constituents has gone. Surely those who truly care for the highlands and highland people will respect the need to prioritise our health and safety.
Despite our strong feelings about the need to keep safe, we in the highlands also know that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more the long-term damage our local businesses will suffer. The absence of visitors paying money to our tourism businesses possibly for weeks and months could actually cause many businesses to go under. It is a vicious circle. For every business that goes under during the pandemic, the highlands becomes all the poorer in what we can offer visitors when it is safe for them to return. It is worse than that, however, because unlike many other enterprises tourism businesses are seasonal. The money taken in during the tourism season has to be sufficient to see that businesses have enough in the bank to get through what we call the dark cold months in the highlands. That is why I suggest that the present pandemic is so particularly dangerous for those tourism businesses. Even if the pandemic were to end in a few months, much of the tourism season will have gone. That is why I support the proposal from my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for the UK Government to introduce a 12-month financial support package to secure the survival of the tourism industry until summer 2021.
To conclude, my plea is to both the UK and the Scottish Governments. Those tourism businesses are doing all they can just now. For instance, selling vouchers that can be used at a later date when travel is absolutely safe is a seriously good idea, one which we should all wholeheartedly endorse and support. But I believe that both the Scottish Government and the UK Government owe it to those tourism businesses to go a specially tailored extra mile for them right now. Otherwise, they will go under and we will have a disaster on our hands. I believe that all of us really owe the tourism businesses that hand of help—nothing less than that.