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Trust angers tour guides over payment demand

The car park at the foot of the hill leading up to Sumburgh Lighthouse, which is too much of a walk for many tourists on short visits to the world famous bird watching site. Photo Promote Shetland

LOCAL tour guides claim they are being asked to pay to view puffins at Sumburgh Head by Shetland Amenity Trust to protect the “long-term viability” of its new £5.4 million lighthouse visitor centre.

The claim comes after the trust accused some tour guides of “subverting the system and blatantly refusing to pay” for access to the world famous site.

However the tour guides have hit back, saying the trust was wrong to think folk should be charged for watching birds if they were not entering the visitor centre.

The trust opened the refurbished lighthouse buildings last year and charge £6 to see the attractions, which include a marine life centre and a restored engine room.

Shetland Amenity Trust general manager Jimmy Moncrieff during the Sumburgh lighthouse visitor centre opening ceremony.

Now trust general manager Jimmy Moncrieff has written a strongly worded letter to the Shetland Islands Tourist Guides Association (SITGA) and the Shetland Tourism Association (STA) accusing some of their members of not paying the admission fee when they visit the site.

In his letter, dated 7 July, Moncrieff said the centre’s future was “predicated on paid visitor access”.

He added: “We have set the charge as low as possible to encourage visitors and it is, therefore, not only disheartening but quite shocking that a professional element of Shetland’s developing tourism industry is blatantly avoiding this modest fee and thereby jeopardising the long-term viability and sustainability of the site.

“Clearly we cannot tolerate the situation where visitors, guided by your members, are using the site without paying.”

Unst-based tour guide Sarah McBurnie said she has been driving tourists to the top of Sumburgh Head for years without paying a charge.

“I do private tours and I take people up to the lighthouse to see puffins,” she said.

“Sometimes visitors will actually want to see around the lighthouse, at which point we pay and we have a look around.

“But most people go to look at the birds and I’m not about to be charged to look at a puffin.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always driven up to the lighthouse, and if they want to start saying it’s ours and you can’t do it, then I’ll just stop going there altogether.”

SITGA chairwoman Catriona Anderson said the trust was wrong to ask people to pay to see puffins on a designated RSPB nature reserve, when they only owned the lighthouse outbuildings.

“If guides are dealing with cruise ships, they don’t have a lot of time. If they go to Sumburgh Head, it’ll be maybe 15 minutes to see the puffins, then they’ll get back on the bus and go again,” she said.

“And a lot of the cruise ship passengers aren’t physically capable to walk up to the lighthouse anyway.”

In his letter, Moncrieff said the trust had devised “a whistle stop tour at a much discounted cost” to deal with this problem.

The general manager was unavailable for comment this week, however a trust spokeswoman said they wanted to work “positively” with the two tourism associations and looked forward to “entering a dialogue”.

Meanwhile the trust has accepted that access to Sumburgh Head itself is free, with admission charged purely for the lighthouse visitor centre.

RSPB northern isles manager Pete Ellis confirmed there was no charge for entering the nature reserve, but encouraged people to visit the lighthouse buildings.

“The Sumburgh Head visitor centre in the lighthouse buildings is a great attraction that explores the history of Sumburgh Head and includes fantastic displays on the natural heritage,” he said.