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Islands passport plan raises capacity worries

Ivan Reid's photograph of Whalsay.

CONCERNS have been raised over the capacity of transport both to Shetland and within the isles as the idea of Scottish islands passport is explored to encourage people to visit the country’s 93 inhabited islands.

Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS) said the idea – which could see people receive a stamp for each island they visit, alongside other incentives – would act as a way of getting more tourists to visit Shetland’s numerous isles such as Whalsay and Fetlar.

While VisitScotland’s local islands manager Steve Mathieson has given the idea his stamp of approval, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott called on the Scottish Government to increase capacity on the Northern Isles ferry first.

North Isles councillor Duncan Simpson also said that issues regarding local transport capacity, especially on the ferry to his native Whalsay, should be a priority.

HITRANS partnership manager Neil MacRae said the organisation has written to ministers to “ascertain their support and seek their advice” for the passport idea, while it will also contact Highlands and Islands Enterprise and VisitScotland to explore the proposal further.

He suggested that the ‘passport’ could offer people incentives to travel to the islands, such as reduced transports costs or discounts and freebies from companies.

The idea has taken inspiration from the West Highland Way, the North Coast 500 road trip as well as Munro-bagging, which encourages walkers to tackle Scotland’s mountains over 3,000 feet in height.

A visitor survey conducted by Shetland Islands Council and VisitScotland in 2017 revealed that two thirds of people did not stray from the mainland during their trip to Shetland.

One third of respondents said they visited Unst and Yell, while 17 per cent went to Bressay and five per cent visited Whalsay, Fair Isle and Fetlar.

Just one per cent of respondents said they visited Papa Stour and Skerries on their trip.

In a report presented to HITRANS members, MacRae said the “marketing opportunities around this concept are endless – for example, the passport could be issued to everybody in Scotland to encourage them to visit as many of the islands as possible over their lifetime”.

A possible passport could even just be through a mobile app – although there was a certain satisfaction of having a physical booklet which could be stamped, MacRae said.

The report added that there is an opportunity for “either a regional or national body to bring together” the numerous transport operators which operate in Scotland’s islands, from CalMac and NorthLink to local councils.

Local MSP Scott said the government needs to look into adding capacity to the Northern Isles ferry route at a time when cheaper fares are set to be rolled out.

“The introduction of RET on the Northern Isles ferry services will add to pressure on cabins and space for vehicles,” he said.

“So before any more initiatives exacerbate this problem, the government must ensure that shipping capacity is enhanced.”

Simpson also suggested that capacity on Shetland Islands Council’s inter-island transport network needs to be sorted before any large scale marketing plans are introduced.

“More people visiting the isles would certainly be a good thing. However, I have concerns regarding capacity,” he said.

“The Whalsay ferry route for example is already struggling with capacity issues, particularly at peak times and days of reduced service, e.g. Saturdays.

“As with everything we are trying to achieve for our island communities, we are hampered by the perennial issue of transport.

“I fear if we cannot get Shetland’s inter-island transport network sorted in the near future everything else is just window dressing and the islands will suffer decline.”

It is also not uncommon for flights to Fair Isle in the summer, which are popular with birdwatchers, to be fully booked.