A raft of Scottish coach hire firms are closing due to the coronavirus outbreak and there are fears that more family operators will not survive without urgent state aid.
D&E Coaches of Inverness and Maynes of Buckie, the two largest coach hire operators in the north of Scotland, have issued a stark warning that unless there is emergency funding the sector will be “reduced to a shell”.
The firms’ bosses say that coach hire is a vital means of transport for tourism in the Highlands and Islands, without which other tourism revenues would be in jeopardy.
Donald Mathieson, who founded the award-winning D&E Coaches with his wife Elizabeth 24 years ago, has 85 staff and a fleet of 65 vehicles.
“We keep reading about airlines, airports and railways in talks about receiving help, and billionaire Richard Branson pleading poverty,” he said.
“But most people travel by coach. How are they to get there, without operators?
“When schools go back in August, there won’t be not enough operators left to transport pupils. We need immediate government and local authority help to enable us to survive.”
Kevin Mayne, is managing director of 73-year-old Maynes, which has 70 staff and 42 vehicles.
He said: “I know of five coach hire businesses which closed last week, with another couple on Friday.
“That’s several hundred jobs away before the Chancellor introduced his very welcome 80% pay supplement.
“It’s heart-breaking to see firms folding – and more will follow unless help arrives.”
He added: “I maintain close links with the Job Centre in Scotland, which normally has 100 coach drivers seeking a job. By the weekend, 2500 drivers had contacted them, concerned about their future.”
Mr Mayne, who is on the Scottish executive of the trade body Coach Passenger Transport, revealed the executive is pushing the councils’ umbrella group Cosla, and the Scottish Government finance and transport ministers plus First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to appreciate the scale of the threat to the industry.
“No-one seems to be considering the plight of what are mainly family businesses in coach hire,” he said.
“When the virus peak has passed, the coaches needed to take people to and from the graveside, weddings, hotels, railway stations and top sporting fixtures may simply be unavailable unless support happens soon.”
Mr Mayne, whose firm has depots in Aberdeen, Orkney, Elgin and Buckie, said 100% of bookings for April had been cancelled last week.
“We’ve invested £12m in the past five years on low emission vehicles and I can see from my office window 25 executive coaches just sitting there”, he said.
“We need a ‘loss of use’ rebate to cover direct losses to ensure coach firms are here next year.”
Mr Mathieson added: “We had record bookings for the next few months to transport over 10,000 cruise line passengers from harbours such as Invergordon, Oban and Portree to major visitor attractions such as Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle and Dunrobin Castle.
“But last week these bookings vanished overnight. When the cruise ships return, and find not enough coaches left to cater for them, they will simply forget about this area.
“Think of all the visitor attractions which will be financially damagingly hit if the coaches vanish and the cruise liners depart.”
More than 3000 coaches a year take visitors to Inverness, with passenger spend injecting £4m in to the local economy.
The tourism sector in Lochaber is similarly dependent on coach transport with some 70% of visitors to Skye getting there by coach.