LONDON—For more than 50 years, a manually operated turntable ferry in rural Scotland has transported passengers between the mainland and Isle of Skye, one of the last ferries of its kind in the world.
About 35,000 tourists take the MV Glenachulish between April and October each year, some spotting eagles or seals on the scenic route over the Kyle Rhea strait to the famed beauty spot.
But this year, the ferry, which was built in 1969, is unlikely to sail due to lockdown restrictions, raising fears over the future of the ferry—which became a community interest company in 2007—and surrounding businesses.
“As a very little community, which is economically fragile already, this is a major hit for us,” said Jo Crawford, who runs the ferry as a social enterprise, a business aiming to do good, from Glenelg village 190 miles northwest of Edinburgh.
“[This] has a massive knock-on effect for local businesses, accommodation providers, holiday homes, the shop, the café in the village—all of these businesses are really dependent on the visitors who come to use the ferry.”
The isolation of the Scottish Highlands and Islands means the region has been relatively shielded from COVID-19, but it’s feeling the full force of the economic headwinds.
Without major hospitals within easy reach and an aging population, locals are nervous about outsiders coming to the area, in case they spread the virus—even though their livelihoods depend on tourism.
The village of Glenelg has a full-time population of about 200 and the surrounding district is home to about 1,000 people in total.
“We are dependent on people coming, but it is too soon (for our) safety—we want to make sure we have a crew next year,” Crawford told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding by the time restrictions are lifted, it may be too late to sail this year.
The region’s northerly latitude and climate mean tourism is restricted to a seven-month season that usually kicks off in March—the month Britain’s lockdown measures were introduced.
At the peak of the tourist season, the six-car ferry makes about 30 crossings a day and employs 14 workers who push and pull the vessel across the currents of the strait to a giant turntable, where it turns to make the journey back again.
But this year, the vessel remains docked in a nearby shipyard, where it is maintained over the winter months.
In a good year, the business makes enough money to subsidize travel for locals and cover maintenance costs over the winter.
But with no tourists in sight, it has turned to grants and loans to tide it over this year; even before the lockdown, it started turning to crowdfunding to raise more than 10,000 pounds for repairs.
“Most seasonal businesses don’t have that much in the bank. For a small business like ours, with no way of making income over the winter, it’s really difficult,” she said.
The predicament is felt by social enterprises in the tourism sector globally, which have made it their mission to support their local communities through sustainable business.
Tourism makes up about 5 percent of Scotland’s GDP, with more than 15.5 million overnight tourists in 2018 spending 5.1 billion pounds ($6 billion), according to government data.
It is also home to a growing social enterprise economy, with about 6,000 social enterprises employing 88,300 people.
A fifth of these businesses are clustered in the Highlands and Islands, an area that received about 9.3 million overnight tourists in 2018, according to the tourism body.
“Wealth generation isn’t on [social enterprises’] agenda so as a result they, might not have built up cash reserves and that makes them vulnerable,” said David Bryan, a hub manager at Social Enterprise Academy, a training program.
While charities have been able to get support from funders during this period, many social enterprises have fallen through the cracks, he said.
“Those organizations that have taken an enterprising approach, tried to generate their own income stream selling products and services, paradoxically they are more vulnerable to the situation,” he said.
But it isn’t just local social enterprises directly linked to tourism that are struggling in the region.
“Even the industries you might not think of as tourism industries have usually got links to tourism,” said Bryan.
About 124 miles south of Glenelg, at the start of the Western Highlands, lies Oban, a pretty port town popular with tourists for its seafood and crossings to neighboring islands.
With a population of 8,500 that triples in the summer months, it will be “incredibly challenging for the area with most of this season lost,” said Neil Matheson, who is chairman of Atlantis Leisure, a local social enterprise sports center.
“Tourism is massive for us. The center is for the local community but we rely on visitors’ money coming through the summer when a lot of our locals are out,” said Matheson, who also runs a shop and furniture store in the town.
Having closed on March 23 and furloughed 52 of its 55 staff, Matheson said the sports center, which reinvests any profits it makes into the business, will have to completely rethink how it operates if it reopens with social distancing measures in place.
“Everything we do has been stood on its head with this virus because we are trying to create a community space where groups get together,” Matheson said.
“We need to start going back to scratch again and start to envisage building a brand new business,” he said.
On the upside, for those businesses able to weather the crisis, the following year could prove to be a bumper one with domestic tourism expected to recover “first and fastest.”
“[Travel] is likely to be car-borne and in Scotland, 74 percent of touring is by private car,” said John Lennon, director of Moffat Centre for Tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University.
“People are thinking and talking of holidays and big wide spaces, which we have a lot of in Scotland.”
By Sarah Shearman