Published 26th July 2020, 18:46

    EVERY sector of the Scottish tourist industry has taken a hit during the Covid-19 emergency, and for many the recovery is likely to be long and painful.

    But while hotels, b&b's and camp sites are now cautiously getting back to business, albeit with reduced capacity, one group is in danger of being left behind.

    Hostels and bunkhouses, which provide budget accommodation for travellers, are facing continuing uncertainty due to their emphasis on communal living with shared bedrooms, kitchens and toilet and shower facilities.

    Scotland has an impressive network of independent hostels. The first ones were established in the 1980s, primarily as bases for mountaineers and hill walkers, and there are now 86 under the Scottish Independent Hostels banner spread throughout mainly rural areas in all parts of the country, from the Borders to the islands.

    These independents are separate from Hostelling Scotland (formerly the SYHA), although 19 are also affiliate members of the latter. The vast majority are micro or small businesses with 89 per cent owner-run or with five or fewer employees.

    Much of their charm lies in their individuality. Four out of five have 30 beds or less. Some have camp sites or pods attached, some are grand old lodges, others a warren of rooms of varying sizes and design. But that quirkiness can also be an Achilles heel as each is affected differently by the current crisis.

    Emergency government support has been welcome, but it's not a one size fits all. Some has come in the form of small business grants, some through the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Others have made use of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to furlough staff, or the Bounce back Loan Scheme. 

    That support has enabled short-term survival, but it has not been enough to replace income lost during lockdown, a period when there would usually have been high occupancy levels and turnover. 

    A survey among members makes for grim reading, with 33% in danger of shutting within six months, and a further 19% give it a year at best. Two have already been forced to close their doors for good. By the end of next summer, almost half our hostels could have disappeared, delivering another shattering blow to the economies of small towns, villages, rural and island communities. Closed hostels mean fewer visitors to the area, and less spending in local shops pubs, restaurants, cafes and attractions.

    It's hard to see a solution under current restrictions: kitchens withdrawn from use until they are able to be managed safely, guests having to be able to adhere to physical distancing rules, toilets and showers assigned to specific guest bedrooms. This means hostels can offer only private rooms with one household per room, fewer rooms than their capacity, and shared facilities withdrawn from use or with limited access.

    There's something of a Catch-22 situation here. Groups of friends, families and clubs who would be the ideal customers at this time are proving less keen to book, while solo travellers who are happy to come would reduce capacity to a non-viable financial level.

    In short, most hostels cannot operate as a hostel for the foreseeable future. A snapshot from SIH members shows the scope of the problems.

    The Saddle Mountain Hostel at Invergarry: Five dorm rooms sleeping 22, but only three can be used at the moment reducing guest capacity by 50%. “Bookings are being cancelled or rescheduled to next year because we cannot provide the accommodation guests were expecting. In addition, travel plans for those within the the UK or from overseas have been severely disrupted, while others don't want to stay simply because they have concerns about staying in shared rooms.”

    The Ballater Hostel: Re-opening August 1st, two mixed dorms and five rooms en suite. All seven rooms will be offered on a private room basis, no more than one household to a room. “This severely reduces the occupancy of each room. Where before four people could have shared a room, now they may need a room each. Lower occupancy means lower income. All communal areas will have to be closed, and we will now be providing a tea tray in each room, making us more like a b&b. We are also having to reduce prices due to not offering what we normally would. We've lost 67% of our main season with the remaining 33% potentially giving little or no income.”

    Heb Hostel on Lewis: 26 beds split over four dorms, plus shepherd's hut for two in garden. “All groups booked until the end of 2020 have cancelled. Festivals and large events have also been cancelled and we do not anticipate any travelling school groups this winter. Travel restrictions and reduced ferry capacity have limited the number of backpackers, walkers and cyclists able to reach the Outer Hebrides this season. Our hostel is usually a bustling hub of activity where guests mingle, make plans and have a happy experience. We hope to survive this difficult period to get that place back again.”

    Loch Ness Backpackers, Drumnadrochit: 31 beds across five dorms, plus 13 beds in four private rooms, but only four showers and toilets reducing maximum capacity to 13 guests. “Our season begins late March and ends by mid-October so we have already lost well over half the season entirely. Our turnover for what remains will be very low and government financial support is set to end in October, just when we will need support more than ever. Our takings from the summer season would normally tide us over for the winter but the money simply isn’t there this year.”

    The SIH group have taken their campaign for continuing support to the Scottish Government and have been lobbying local MPs and MSPs. 

    The financial pressures on so many businesses and individuals during this unprecedented crisis inevitably mean not everyone can be saved. There will be casualties, but it would be a tragedy if all those great hostel nights were suddenly reduced to just distant memories.

    Let's hope they can negotiate a path through this troubled landscape, and that we can continue to have a hostel network to be proud of.