A LOCAL hotel owner has hit out at NorthLink after it emerged that the ferry operator has decided not to take any group bookings for the whole of next year.
Managing director of Brudolff Hotel Group Robert Smith described the move as “simply beyond belief” and accused the ferry operator of being “determined to kill the tourism sector in Shetland”.
NorthLink said they are closely and constantly reviewing the situation. However, the industry was not consulted prior to the decision.
The hotel company, which relies on group bookings for a significant part of its business, operates the Lerwick, Shetland and the Kveldsro Hotels, all in Lerwick.
The company has already been forced into making some redundancies earlier this year after group bookings were cancelled in response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
On Thursday, in an email to a customer of Brudolff Hotel Group, NorthLink confirmed that “due to the ongoing concern over Covid-19” the company would not take any booking for groups in 2021 and that all existing group booking for 2021 have been cancelled.
Requests for 2022 would be reviewed in September next year, the company said.
Due to social distancing requirements, capacity on board the two ferries Hjaltland and Hrossey is currently down to 335 passengers.
A furious Smith said NorthLink continued to demonstrate that they were “completely unsuitable” for running the ferry service between Shetland and the Scottish mainland.
“The idea that they would; now, cancel all tour bookings for 2021 is simply beyond belief.
“Who knows how things will be in December this year, or Easter next year; and then summer 2021 when most of these will take place.
“They seem determined to kill the tourism sector in Shetland once and for all.
“I will be interested to see if the Scottish government have anything to offer or say on this, although not holding my breath.”
Emma Miller of the Shetland Tourism Association said most of her members were smaller operators who would in their majority not be affected, but she added that such as decision at this time was a blow to the confidence of the sector.
“It is a concern for tourism generally. It is disappointing that they feel they have to cancel next year before we even had Christmas,” she said.
Shetland development manager for VisitScotland Steve Mathieson added: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the tourism industry in Shetland, and Scotland, with the effects felt across all sectors.
“Although in an ideal world we would like all services to remain at a normal level, we understand that this is a very challenging time and that certain decisions are being taken that will inevitably have an impact on others.
“While we are still in Phase 3 of the government route-map VisitScotland will continue to work together with the industry to find solutions that keep Shetland functioning as a safe and viable tourism destination.”
Commercial director for NorthLink Ferries Jim Dow said: “Due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, we are not currently accepting group bookings for 2021, but are continuing to closely review the situation and we hope to be able to change this if circumstances allow.
“We are committed to supporting the tourism industry in Shetland and Orkney, and continue to welcome tourists on board our services on a regular basis.
“This provisional decision will help us support islanders and visitors with their forward bookings and avoid further cancellations.”
Meanwhile, Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart is seeking an urgent meeting with Scottish Government ministers to discuss the concern of the industry.
“It is of the utmost importance that all appropriate health and safety measures are in place to control the spread of COVID-19 and keep people safe,” she said.
“That being said it is extremely worrying for Shetland’s tourism industry for such a stark decision to have been taken at this time, and its impact cannot be under-estimated.
“The cancellation of all group bookings for next year by NorthLink will clearly be very damaging for the recovery of the tourism industry that is facing a long winter. This is another blow for the sector after such a challenging year. I am seeking an urgent meeting with the tourism secretary and islands minister to discuss the situation.”
A spokesperson for government agency Transport Scotland said: “This is a decision by Serco NorthLink Ferries to allow the system to open for bookings in 2021, in line with current guidance on groups meeting indoors and restricted capacity due to physical distancing. It will allow islanders and visitors to make plans and forward bookings, providing certainty to support tourism on the islands.
“The situation will be kept under review and it may be possible to open up more capacity on the booking system when there is greater certainty these bookings can be honoured.”
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