Rhoda Meek knows the power of Scottish islands working together. During the first lockdown she created a website for more than 360 businesses from Arran to Ulva to sell their wares while the pandemic prevented visitors.
Now she and her neighbours have launched a holiday lettings website that aims to take on Airbnb and ensure that more of the islands’ tourism revenue stays local.
“I was increasingly aware of the challenge posed by lack of affordable housing for islanders and the proliferation of short-term lets, and the difficult balance between the need for tourism and the damage that can be done,” explains Meek.
IsleHoliday.com aims to ensure that more of the revenue generated by tourism in the islands stays local, with profits from the commission-based structure to be reinvested in small businesses, community and housing projects.
On the east of Tiree, an island in the Inner Hebrides where Meek lives, she estimates that 40% of the houses sit empty during the winter: “It’s just not sustainable for keeping communities in fire fighters and care staff. We have to start somewhere.”
But she is likewise a pragmatist: “It will take time to change that situation and involve action at a local and national government level. But, in the meantime, the letting market exists.
“People have sunk money into houses then can’t afford to let them on a long-term basis. And with short-term lets now the money is leaving the islands, and often leaving the UK. Our goal is to use the current market to generate revenue which can be used to the benefit of our communities, particularly in relation to affordable housing and long-term rental options for residents.”
Meek admits she was nervous about floating the idea, given how controversial the subject has become, but says that so far the idea has “struck a chord” with islanders.
She has also sought input from housing groups across the islands, and from younger residents, “to make sure we’re not working at cross purposes”. On South Uist last month, for example, a house was for sale to islanders or first-time buyers only following a spike in second-home ownership as remote working during the pandemic made the islands an option for city-dwellers who were able to pay more.
Yvonne Murray, originally from Lewis but now working in Worcestershire, is keen to sign up after buying a small cottage on Harris earlier this year.
“I could see the property prices on the islands going up and up after lockdown, and as a first-time buyer, I didn’t want to miss the boat,” she explains. “As a young person, I want to live and work in the islands but until the internet connectivity is good enough it’s just not possible”.
She currently uses Airbnb to rent both her new property and her father’s house on Lewis – he moves out to a caravan behind the garage in peak summer season to supplement his pension.
The new platform will be “totally invaluable”, Murray believes. “The commission is going back into the community and I’m behind any young upstart company challenging the big boys.”
Last year, analysis by the Guardian showed that Airbnb has become so prevalent in Great Britain that some parts of the country now have one listing for every four properties, fuelling concern that the rapid expansion in short-term lets is out of control and depriving local residents of much-needed homes.
Identifying hotspots in both rural areas and inner-city neighbourhoods, across England, Scotland and Wales, the analysis found the highest incidence of Airbnbs was in Edinburgh Old Town, where there were 29 active listings for every 100 properties, while the north-west of Skye had the second-highest concentration, at 25 listings per 100 properties. At the time, Airbnb responded that the findings are based on “unreliable scraped data and flawed methodology”.
Responding to what many in the Highlands and islands frame as a crisis, last month the Scottish government set out legislation requiring all local authorities to establish a short-term lets licensing scheme by October 2022, after residents across Scotland raised significant concerns about the impact of short-term lets, including noise, antisocial behaviour and the impact on the supply on housing.
And in July the Holyrood government pledged £43m to build affordable homes on the Western Isles amid fears of population decline.
Whilst isleHoliday is a direct response to this, Meek also hopes that – by encouraging islander hosts – the new platform will shift the dynamic between locals and tourists.
This aspiration comes after a series of flashpoints in recent years: thoughtless camper van traffic blocking and littering narrow rural roads, an influx of visitors who were not always mindful of local Covid concerns following lockdowns, and most recently furious islanders complaining about tourists taking up space on already over-stretched ferry services.
“This allows us to start a dialogue with people coming to the islands, to send them information about passing places, phone signal, local charities before the arrive,” says Meek. It should make people think slightly differently about visiting: yes these are gorgeous places but they are also living, breathing communities.”