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Tourism in Ross-shire and wider Highlands facing a perfect storm of staff shortages, soaring costs and the legacy of Brexit and Covid despite booming visitor numbers using hotels and hospitality outlets

By Alasdair Fraser

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Applecross Inn is known around the world but also faces challenges.
Applecross Inn is known around the world but also faces challenges.

Optimism over booming visitor numbers in Ross-shire is being sharply undercut by staff shortages, soaring prices and the legacy of Brexit and Covid.

While some prominent tourism and hospitality businesses are reporting bumper Easter returns and enthusiastically eyeing summer season prospects after gruelling lockdown challenges, a constant struggle to fill staff vacancies is a recurring theme.

Mark Carrington, manager of the world-famous Applecross Inn, a prime North Coast 500 stop-off, reports extremely healthy trade but from a staff requirement of 45 currently only has 32.

He said: “The hotel is fully booked pretty much all the way through the season. It is shaping up as a terrific season, but staffing is a serious issue."

“Brexit has definitely had a big effect in reducing the number of workers generally within the local economy and fewer live here with a rise in holiday homes.Furlough has also seen people looking for different types of jobs.

“We can't serve food outside because we simply don’t have the staff to cover it.”

Graham Rooney, of Tain’s highly-popular Platform 1864 gastropub, is delighted with trade to date with goodwill visits from people he made the effort to deliver to in lockdown.

He admitted: “The only concern is staffing. We are sitting with 26 staff where we would normally have 35.It is a worry for me that, come peak season, there won’t be enough staff which could limit capacity.

Graham Rooney started deliveries in lockdown and is now being repaid by those same diners dropping in to his Tain business. But he too faces staffing challenges.
Graham Rooney started deliveries in lockdown and is now being repaid by those same diners dropping in to his Tain business. But he too faces staffing challenges.

“I know financially we need to have a record-breaking summer to be able to keep our core staff on over the winter.”

Sonny Spencer, general manager at the Badachro Inn near Gairloch, currently has seven staff.

He said: “The season has been noticeably longer. During December and January there were still quite a lot of people floating about, walking and doing the Munros.That’s had a knock-on effect towards summer.

“Figures for footfall have definitely been a lot higher, probably 15 to 20 per cent busier than we would expect. It is certainly welcome, given what we’ve been through with Covid.

“The only negative is staffing. We’re doing better than most, to be fair, but it hasn’t been easy.We’ve had to be quite competitive in how we approach the situation.”

The picture though is mixed.

Mike Dwyer, owner of the Balintore Inn on the Easter Ross seaboard, can currently call on just 15 staff from a usual pool of 35.

Badachro in Wester Ross. Picture: David Richardson.
Badachro in Wester Ross. Picture: David Richardson.

Mr Dwyer, who is looking at creating live-in roles to help fill positions, said: “It has been really quiet, thus far.However, bookings have started to come in now and they look encouraging so far. I would say we are cautiously optimistic, but we are generally down on sales overall as people are coming out, but not lingering as long because of Covid concerns.

“With Brexit and Covid we have lost overseas workers and backpackers. Other staff are resistant to being on the front line given Covid risks.We've also got the added uncertainty of war in Ukraine and escalating prices. Everything is increasing in cost.”

Lucy Beattie, who runs the self-catering Ullapool Holiday Cottages at Leckmelm, has had to rely on herself and her family to plug gaps in staffing, as well as experiencing a downturn in bookings.

Lucy Beattie: Challenges.
Lucy Beattie: Challenges.

She said: “Bookings have certainly slowed. I’ve got gaps throughout June to September which is very unusual.Holidays can be among the first things people cut back on in terms of spending and we’re also getting cancellations as people hit financial difficulties.

“Brexit is making our country very expensive for visitors compared to the rest of Europe.We have got an incredible landscape and environment, but if it is simply too expensive to visit we will see a real impact.

“There is a drain on the availability of staffing in Ullapool and Brexit is affecting costs and our ability to get supplies.”

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