With scores of passenger planes standing unused at Edinburgh Airport; the Highlands, normally thronged with hill-walkers and hikers, are eerily quiet; all routes to the Scottish islands are silent; even Victoria Street, one of the most iconic picture-postcard thoroughfares in the capital, is deserted. An end-of-the-world blockbuster, however, this isn’t, but the grim reality of a nation that is fighting a pandemic disease.

The problem of Covid-19 for tourism

For everyone involved in the tourism sector, Covid-19 has had an immediate and unexpected impact, least not for the owners and managers of Scotland’s 16,000-plus self-catering properties, for whom guaranteed bookings have evaporated overnight. With a UK-wide lockdown, restricting people to their homes and prohibiting travel for all but essential reasons, overseas and domestic holiday bookings have slumped.

For international passengers, cancelled holidays have been enforced by FCO travel advisories, hotel closures and mandatory quarantines.

Despite Scotland’s desire to share this beautiful country with the world they have asked everyone at this time not to travel to or within Scotland, a source of frustration for property owners and travellers alike.

Saddled with grave news for the past two months, the UK is craving a ray of hope as the country wades through the Covid-19 crisis. For Scotland’s self-catering property owners, a window of opportunity is emerging that could herald a resurgence in the country’s tourism industry once lockdown restrictions are lifted and the UK’s holidaymakers turn their thoughts to their next vacation.

After the pandemic

The travel industry as a whole has already been hit hard and it’s set to take a significant amount of time to return to previous heights, even once travel restrictions are lifted. But, from a UK perspective, the one area which could see a boom is the ‘staycation’, with many likely to opt for local getaways rather than long flights to exotic locations.

 While it’s still difficult to envisage exactly how lockdown restrictions will be lifted, it’s likely that international travel could remain challenging for some time. As different nations lift restrictions at different times with the peaks and troughs of the pandemic varying between countries, travel to Europe and beyond looks far from fluid. While elements of the UK lockdown – schools, restaurants and shopping centres, for example – may be lifted gradually, British holidaymakers will be far more confident in booking vacations within their own borders, aware that a potential cancellation will be far less costly and more flexible. Postponing or cancelling a booking of a Scottish holiday cottage, for example, is far easier without the complications of air travel and overseas car hire.

Self-catering accommodation is a key component of the Scottish tourism sector. With nearly 17,000 properties across the country, accounting for 3.4 million visitor nights every year, self-catering stays contribute an estimated £206 million to Scotland’s economy – a figure that will only increase if the revival of domestic holiday travel can be effectively harnessed after Covid-19 has eased.

With the summer weather beckoning, UK residents keen to rediscover their own country, fuel prices low and the nation on the brink of reopening, the surge of interest in domestic holidays in Scotland promises to offer a much-needed injection to the country’s tourism industry.

The New Zealand model

Faced with international travel restrictions, New Zealand is striving to support its vital tourism industry which contributes NZ$41 billion to its economy every year. Like Scotland, much of New Zealand’s tourism is centred on its rural landscapes, with a comparable range of outdoor activities – hiking, mountaineering and camping – proving popular among visitors.

Like Scotland too, New Zealand’s own residents contribute a little over 50% of the country’s tourism income. With air travel now on hold, the country’s tourism chief, Chris Roberts, recognises how his own citizens will continue to support the industry in the months to come, saying, “I do believe there are going to be a lot of Kiwis saying in future, ‘I’m going to get out and have a holiday, and take the kids around New Zealand’”.

Slow travel: the lockdown model with no boundaries

Slow travel is a way of exploring a new place that not only enables you to absorb your surroundings and immerse yourself in the culture, but also enhances your connection with the people who live and work there.

By spending your time absorbing the local culture: browsing the independent shops where artisan goods are sold; enjoying traditional cuisine at cafes and restaurants; or chatting to locals, allows you to connect with where you are instead of simply seeing it.  Slow travel can take us out of our comfort zones, teach us how to deal with new people and environments, and challenge us to get off our phones and actively seek out new experiences.

In fact, the UK-wide lockdown could result in a surprising change for Scottish tourism. Could slow travel, a methodology for which Scotland is almost purpose-built, grow in popularity as a result of millions of citizens being confined to their homes? To understand why, it’s necessary to delve into the mind of one who has been barred from leaving their home while the pandemic plays out across the country.

Few will pretend that lockdown is enjoyable. Never in the recent history of the UK have citizens been prevented from leaving their homes; however, spending so much time indoors has helped to reshape many people’s approach to their daily lives. Family bonds have strengthened; new pastimes have been discovered; the urge to dash manically from one place to the next in a society that is increasingly ruled by time and tick lists has diminished. People have, through no choice of their own, learned to slow the pace of their lives.

While the restrictions pose an economic conundrum for businesses who rely on cramming in as many customers as possible, this new way of life could be harnessed to promote the concept of slow travel. What most people crave now more than anything is freedom: the chance to escape their homes and to experience life outside. Presented with the opportunity to book their next holiday or short break, it’s likely that expectations will have changed: the feel of the summer breeze on the face from a mountain path or a family competition to skim stones across the serene waters of a loch suddenly offer far a greater appeal for travellers more accustomed to the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean.

Being creative in the face of crisis is a mentality I believe businesses affected by this pandemic should stand by, this may mean adjusting and promoting a different approach to what has worked in the past.

Post-pandemic slow travel means enjoying the same relaxed, family-focused time but with the added benefit of exploring Scotland’s landscapes, unique culture and heritage, without the need to race from one destination to the next in the style of the frenetic guided tours more commonly seen on overseas holidays.

Self-catering cottages are the perfect base for a slow travel experience.  From a single location, it’s not possible to tour the entire country in a week, so focusing on the immediate vicinity means gentler walks, wildlife spotting, a lazy saunter around a local town or an extended Scottish lunch that isn’t bound by time – all the elements of a slow travel experience that will connect travellers with the unique fabric of Scottish life, without the need to rush from pillar to post in the holiday equivalent of It’s a Knockout!

Beyond 2020

There’s little doubt that Covid-19 has stimulated some courageous acts of altruism, from the centenarian walking 100 laps of his garden to raise millions for the NHS to entire neighbourhoods coming together to supply those in need with essential provisions. With that comes greater connectivity between communities and a growing awareness of the immediate world, which for Scotland poses a scintillating opportunity to build upon its reputation as an outstanding holiday destination for UK and global visitors alike.