THE head of the Nevis Range Mountain Resort has called on a special post-Brexit visa dispensation to be given to the hospitality sector to combat the struggles the sector faces.

The resort is located just outside Fort William and covers an area at the base and up to the top of Aonach Mor, a neighbour to Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis.

Chris O'Brien, managing director of Nevis Range, told The National that in the summer of 2020, as Covid restrictions eased, the business experienced the busiest summer in its history.

"And it wasn't close," he added.

O'Brien did accept that there was a "pandemic bounce" with people who would usually go to the Alps for mountain biking heading to the Highlands and many telling staff they had no idea the capacity for outdoor activities in Scotland.

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O'Brien said: "The number of people coming to the Highlands, is huge, absolutely huge. So it's not like we don't have the business. We just don't have the people to take advantage of those numbers.

"This summer, we actually had to change and reduce our food offering. So that it was able to work with the number of staff that we have."

Nevis Range has a core staff of 50 people that work all year round which escalates to around 100 at the height of a busy winter season. People work in the ticket office and catering as well as engineers that work on things like the gondola.

The resort is able to retain staff well but O'Brien said that outside influences mean that having the ability to cope with changes becomes challenging when European workers are not heading to the area in the same numbers.

He said: "Even if Nevis Range isn't somewhere that traditionally has a large volume of Europeans working here, because they come to Fort William, it creates movement in the market which means that you don't always have enough people in the area at those key times for you to sort of cope with seasonal fluctuations."

Issues around the availability of housing in areas like Fort William mean that attracting workers from the rest of the UK can prove more difficult than it would have been to attract someone from the EU to work for a season or two and would be living in a shorter-term rental property.

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O'Brien said: "We've seen the UK Government give special dispensation for HGV drivers and butchers and, frankly, we think that hospitality should be treated exactly the same.

"We have a staffing crisis and hospitality and nothing from Westminister on giving us some help there and allowing us to have work visas for Europeans."

The UK Government announced in September that 5000 HGV drivers would be able to come to the UK for three months in the run-up to Christmas to support the haulage industry.

In October it was announced that 800 butchers and 5500 poultry workers were allowed to enter the UK on short-term visas.

The proportion of EU workers in hospitality has been falling since the UK's exit from the bloc and it was reported during the summer that the number of EU workers in UK hospitality dropped to 37% of the entire workforce

The Office for National Statistics reported in September that hospitality businesses are more than twice as likely as other industries to be experiencing challenges in filling vacancies compared with normal expectations.

The same report also said that a quarter (25%) of all businesses experiencing recruitment challenges said that a reduced number of EU applicants was a factor.

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A UK Government spokesperson said: “Our Points-Based Immigration System is delivering on the people’s priorities of getting businesses to invest in the domestic workforce while attracting those with the skills we need.  

“We’ve also implemented an unprecedented package of measures to support businesses during the pandemic and our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work. 

“Our Hospitality Strategy includes measures to help address current recruitment challenges as well as to make the industry a career option of choice. Employers must invest in improved pay and working conditions to help make the hospitality sector attractive to the domestic workforce.”