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Business / Things looking up for tour and excursion sector as larger cruise liners prepare to visit

Island Vista will be on hand to provide tours for the 900-plus passengers on the Marella Explorer 2, which is due to arrive into Lerwick on Monday

The Island Vista team, from left to right: Paula Moss, Robin Hunter, Jolene Garriock.

IT goes without saying that life as a tour and excursion company is rather difficult without any tourists.

For Island Vista’s Jolene Garriock, last year was effectively a “non event” as coronavirus restrictions cut off travel, and her business’ main source of income.

But on Monday things will return to some sense of normality again when the local company provides tours and excursions for the 900-plus passengers on the cruise ship Marella Explorer 2.

Before the pandemic cruise ships provided around 75 per cent of Island Vista’s business as the company helped guests take in the sights of Shetland.

Monday’s cruise arrival – the first Island Vista will cater for since last year – is a somewhat grander affair than the Island Sky, which arrived into Lerwick earlier this week with only 66 passengers to become the first liner in the isles – and Scotland – since early 2020.

Garriock said the 900 or so guests on board the Marella are still only half the ship’s usual capacity.

Lerwick Harbour’s Mair’s Pier provides additional berthing capacity for mid-sized cruise ships. Photo: Calum Toogood/Lerwick Port Authority.
An archive image of cruise ship passengers in Lerwick. Photo: Calum Toogood/Lerwick Port Authority.

The tours and excursions themselves will still bear some of the hallmarks of the pandemic; those working for Island Vista will be tested prior to arriving at the pier, and the group sizes will be Covid compliant.

On the ships there are also stringent regulations in place.

“Over the past year and a bit the cruise ships have worked really hard to make sure they can guarantee safety and security to the local community,” Garriock said.

“They have been really keen to make sure that the community feels safe before they come here. They want to come back again next summer, so they don’t want themselves getting a bad reputation.”

This year’s cruise season in Lerwick, which features domestic liners, is a vastly quieter affair, with only 21 calls compared to 100-plus in previous years.

Rewind back to March 2020, meanwhile, and a burgeoning cruise season was wiped out as the coronavirus pandemic wrapped its fingers around the sector.

The tourism industry was left under a shadow of uncertainty, with no clue as to when things may reopen.

“Through the summer last year there was still always the hope that things would get going again, but it never came to pass,” Garriock reflected.

“We used the time productively to work on other bits and pieces in the background – a bit of tour development, and we got a new website designed.”

Garriock kept working on a part-time basis, but her two members of staff were furloughed, and are only just fully coming back into their roles now.

“This year so far has been a lot more positive, and thanks to our new website we were able to set up an online bookings system, and that has helped with picking up a few of the small group tours.”

The business owner added that those who are travelling up to Shetland and taking part in tours are fast to reassure the company.

“What we’ve been finding with the individuals that have been coming to us as well for bookings, the first thing they tell you in their email enquiry is ‘we’re doubly vaccinated and we’ll do our lateral flow tests before we come to Shetland’, so they want to offer you that reassurance,” Garriock said.

Jolene Garriock.

So what about the tour guides who show visitors Shetland’s sights?

Before the pandemic Island Vista had 40 self-employed guides, and since then some have either decided against guiding this year or have retired.

But a fresh crop of 10 have gained national green badge certification, and some are set to have a baptism of fire on Monday when the cruise passengers furrow ashore.

These 10 guides started training in 2019 but the pandemic halted their progress, with the group only sitting their exams in late May this year.

There are now about 45 offering their services to Island Vista, including their first ever guide aged under 30.

“What we’ve found over the past two courses, there is a much younger demographic amongst our guides now,” Garriock said.

“Because of the fact that before you never had enough work as a tourist guide to be able to make a full time living out of it, but now you can actually work hard and give yourself a full-time income from it.”

With all travel reopening across the UK earlier this year, the tourism sector has enjoyed a gradual increase in trade.

Island Vista recently won a contract to assess the state of the local industry on behalf of the Shetland Tourism Association, and it appears things are looking up.

“They are struggling to find the time to speak to us, because they are so busy,” Garriock said.

“That’s really positive. It’s really reassuring that they are so busy.”