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High cost of travel stifling tourism industry

Seabirds at the cliffs off the back of Noss this summer. Photo: Shetland News/Hans J. Marter

ALMOST four-fifths of tourism providers in Shetland view the cost of getting to and from the islands as the biggest barrier to growing the industry.

Shetland Tourism Association carried out a survey among local industries and found that 78 per cent said expensive travel was the “main disincentive to visitor tourism and barrier to industry growth” – giving the example that in 2015 it would have cost a family of five around £900 to travel here.

Tourism association chairman James Tait presented a summary of his report to Shetland’s external transport forum at Islesburgh on Monday afternoon.

Nearly a fifth of those surveyed also remarked on the ongoing problem of availability of cabins and spaces for cars and buses on NorthLink’s ferry service to and from Aberdeen and Kirkwall.

More than 40 per cent of businesses based in Bressay and the north and outer isles felt the cost and frequency of transport within Shetland was a problem.

That was especially the case “when coupled with already exorbitant visitor fares to the mainland”, Tait said, and “often resulted in offering under-priced services in outlying areas to try and compensate for the disincentives”.

Transport is “overwhelmingly seen as a barrier to growth of tourism in Shetland, but is also a factor that individual businesses can have very little influence over. It is therefore essential that the sector works more closely with government and other agencies at every level so that Shetland’s tourism industry can influence the transport debate.”

While the Air Discount Scheme has been increased to 50 per cent, that only applies to island residents, and there appears to be little prospect of cheaper flights to and from the islands in the near future.

The Scottish Government has pledged to find a way of substantially bringing down ferry fares in Shetland, something it has already done in the Western Isles, while Shetland Islands Council is also examining how best to provide transport and connections to the North Isles in future.

Transport Scotland official Graham Laidlaw told the meeting that islanders should see a “significant reduction” in fares after a new contract comes into effect in 2018.

He said the “road equivalent tariff” (RET) was likely to apply on the Pentland Firth and a slightly different formula would apply to the longer trip to and from Shetland.

Laidlaw said there had been an unusually high number of responses to a STAG consultation on ferry fares, with both Shetland and Orkney contributing over 1,000 responses.

The tourism association has drawn together a list of aspirations which also include increasing the frequency and reliability of flights during busy spells; improving links to Scandinavia by air and sea, and improving the capacity and frequency of inter-island transport services.

Tait said the islands had been enjoying “a lot of good publicity” following the screening of the popular Shetland crime drama and other TV shows including the BBC’s recent brace of documentaries about life in Fair Isle.

SIC councillor and former tour operator Jonathan Wills said many of those points had been made consistently over the last 10 years. He is eager to see progress on putting together a Shetland-wide visitor pass for tourists.

“If you go on holiday somewhere you can nearly always get a visitor pass which gets you either discounts, or [the ability to use] all the trams and buses and trains.

“This was discussed recently at the [council’s] environment and transport committee, but we don’t seem to be moving very quickly towards it. It may not be possible to do that with a card – it might be something on your smartphone.”

Wills said it was also important to ensure the next North Boats contract provides “couchettes” so that people can get an affordable night’s sleep when going to and from Shetland.

“We need a cheaper alternative for the backpacker market,” he said, “who are going to come back and be our regular customers, because we have a very high repeat customer rate, despite the cost.”

Tait agreed that the possibility of couchettes was “something that’s mentioned a lot to the association”.