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Transport / Councillors unhappy with lack of consultation on cancellation of NorthLink group bookings

The NorthLink ferry terminal in Lerwick. Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council and local transport partnership ZetTrans are seeking urgent talks with Transport Scotland over the cancellation of group bookings on NorthLink ferry services next year.

ZetTrans chairman councillor Ryan Thomson said the decision from operator Serco NorthLink Ferries was “both surprising and disappointing” – while he described it as “very premature and yet another hammer-blow to the suffering tourism industry in Shetland”.

“There can be no awareness in Transport Scotland of what the knock on effects are of a decision such as this to local businesses and the community, as there has been no dialogue or input from the community,” he added.

Council leader Steven Coutts, meanwhile, said the local authority heard the news through the media on Wednesday.

SIC political leader Steven Coutts.SIC leader Steven Coutts: Photo: Shetland News

“We learned through Twitter of the imposition of transport restrictions, and removal of vessels, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the councillor continued.

“To see a repeat of significant announcements being made without any discussion with the council is extremely regrettable, and I will be seeking an urgent dialogue with government on this issue. Decisions having such an impact on our community should be made with us, not imposed on us.”

Coutts said the decision will “significantly undermine our tourism and hospitality sector in Shetland, an industry that has suffered more than most, but played a really strong part in the wider control of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“We clearly do not know where Shetland will be come 2021, but to see this decision made in this manner is really damaging to public confidence,” he said.

Thomson said that ZetTrans would also write to Transport Scotland, “insisting on getting answers as to how and why this decision was made, and why it was made without local stakeholder engagement”.

The decision to ditch group and tour bookings for the whole of 2021 was met with dismay by local hotelier Robert Smith, who said it was “simply beyond belief”.

Emma Miller of the Shetland Tourism Association also described the move as disappointing.

On Wednesday commercial director for NorthLink Ferries Jim Dow said the operator is “continuing to closely review the situation and we hope to be able to change this if circumstances allow”.

He said the “provisional decision will help us support islanders and visitors with their forward bookings and avoid further cancellations”.

A spokesperson Transport Scotland, the government agency which awards the contract for the Northern Isles ferry routes, added: “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.”