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Plight of tourism and hospitality sectors under the spotlight as UK government minister Michael Gove visits Easter Ross to meet business leaders and Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone to discuss impact of Covid-19 coronavirus and Brexit on Highland economy

By Scott Maclennan

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THE plight of the Highland tourism industry was in the spotlight when one of the UK government’s most powerful ministers was quizzed about it during a visit to Ross-shire.

Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, spoke to tourism and hospitality leaders during a visit to Alness – after being invited by MP Jamie Stone to hear first-hand accounts of the enormous challenges faced by the sector.

He was initially called on by the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP to visit the Highlands at the start of March amid concerns that many EU workers are being discouraged from working in the UK due to Brexit. Those concerns have multiplied due to the pandemic, with tourism and hospitality businesses struggling for survival.

So Murray Lamont of Mackay’s Hotel in Wick arranged a roundtable event with Mr Gove and Mr Stone that was attended by David Richardson of the Federation of Small Businesses and Tanja Lister of the Kylesku Hotel.

Discussions focussed on the need for skilled labour in the north, connectivity issues and the need for ongoing government support for tourism and hospitality.

Asked what he was told at the meeting Mr Gove said: “Jamie Stone had asked me a wee while back if I would come and visit his constituency to see for myself some of the challenges facing the tourism and hospitality sector.

“Certain things came through loud and clear. First thing is that the people I talked to were very grateful for the assistance that has been provided by the UK Treasury furloughs scheme in order to make sure that jobs can be protected.

“And also through the VAT cut, which is a clear recognition that the hospitality sector has been one of the worst affected in the pandemic and the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury are required to support the sector.

“Points were also made about the particular nature of the tourism season in the Highlands including making sure that when people are here they have the best possible experience.

“Several points were made about connectivity, and of course, one of the things that I will be working with the Scottish Government on is to make sure we can have an appropriate rollout of 5G and broadband so that everyone in Scotland, with those in the hospitality and tourism sector at the very front of the queue, get the opportunity for better connectivity, better linkages, a greater degree of integration which will allow their businesses to get through a very very difficult period.

“It is also the case that I heard about some of the access to skilled labour and we will do everything possible with our new points based immigration system in order to make sure that the hospitality sector gets skilled labour that it requires.”

“I thought the meeting was good but brief and in it we were able to make a number of points and Mr Gove appeared to be listening and be receptive and his reaction to some of the points that we made was positive as well.

“We summarise the state of play at the moment which varies across the Highlands. The key thing I think is ensuring is that while businesses have survived the lockdown they can survive the aftermath until next Easter.

“So we highlighted a number of points, including the reduction in VAT which will expire in January and there was certainly a call from me and others that it should be extended.

“We compete with Europe where it is much lower, prices can be higher in the Highlands, we have got to attract more people here so we have got to make that lower and more competitive.

“Another point we raised is we have got to be able to retain staff and one of the ways to do that is to reduce the employers’ National Insurance contribution and then one hotelier present stressed the importance of migrant labour to the Highlands.

“Migrant labour is vitally important and has been for a number of years – none of us know what the employment situation is going to be like next year or even later on this year so we need to ensure we have the right staff with the right skills and the right desire to work.”

Jamie Stone said that while "no supporter of Gove's government" he was glad to put party politics aside to highlight key issues to those in power. "I was pleased that by seeing the NC500 for himself and meeting with local businesses, he was able to show an appreciation for the particular difficulties faced by Highlanders right now."

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