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Viewpoint / Shetland’s appeal remains strong despite pandemic

VisitScotland’s development manager Steve Mathiesen. Photo: ViditScotland

Following two years during which Covid-19 has devastated the tourism industry in Scotland, we are finally approaching the new season with a sense of optimism once more, writes Steve Mathieson, VisitScotland development manager for Shetland.

The results of last year’s Shetland Tourism Association survey were very positive, with 82 per cent of businesses confident about the future and 85 per cent of the community survey respondents welcoming the return of tourism. There is also an overriding sense that tourism brings value to the islands, with 91 per cent seeing tourism as beneficial.

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Shetland’s tourism industry has shown incredible resilience in the face of adversity. Shetland proved to be one of Scotland’s most attractive destinations early post-Covid-19, as demonstrated last year when tourism reopened and accommodation providers, attractions and tours reported good figures for the latter half of the season.

The remoteness of the islands, lack of crowds, wide open spaces and fresh air has only added to the popularity of normal attractions and brought visitors here who may usually have holidayed abroad – a trend we expect to continue through 2022.

An unfortunate downside to our remoteness is that we have a smaller pool of available labour to draw on. The ongoing staff shortages that are affecting businesses across Scotland are perhaps felt the most in island communities.

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Despite the pandemic, there has still been lots of activity in Shetland to boost our tourism offering for the future. Two major projects funded by VisitScotland’s Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund (RTIF) are due to complete in time for the start of the season.

The Hermaness project will see two kilometres of new boardwalk on the Unst nature reserve, plus a new interpretive centre and toilet block, funded by nearly £300,000 of RTIF money and £600,000 from NatureScot’s Natural Cultural Heritage Fund.

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The new Hermaness nature reserve boardwalk is set to be completed before the start of the tourist season. Photo: VisitScotland

Also, Scalloway Community Development Company was awarded £375,000 from RTIF, alongside funding from HIE, to develop a new camping/caravanning site at Asta, and work is now well underway.

Studies are currently taking place in Shetland for two very exciting possible additions to tourism. Space will be very much on the agenda for Shetland in the coming years with SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst attracting a huge amount of interest and investment worldwide. Work has now commenced after the granting of planning permission. Tourist numbers are expected to be significant, and a visitor potential survey has been commissioned by the council to gauge the likely interest and assist in developing a high-quality product. The Wild Skies project in Unst attracted tourists with its planetary trail on Saxa Vord hill last year and looking ahead, a new Sky Trail will be installed this year, featuring listening posts and audio benches as well as a shelter designed to allow people to watch the night sky in comfort.

The second commission is a feasibility study into creating a long-distance walking route for the isles, the Shetland Way, funded by HIE and led by VisitScotland. This will build on the popularity of walking for both visitors and locals, provide opportunities for business initiatives and fit with the aspirations of the Shetland active travel strategy.

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As it will run throughout the isles, it will also tie in nicely with Geopark Shetland and the recently-launched Scotland’s UNESCO Trail. The aim will be for a dedicated walking route to help extend the tourist season and to spread the benefits of tourism throughout the isles, with the addition of tertiary routes on as many islands as possible, as well as the main spine route through Mainland, Yell and Unst. The study will also investigate the possibility of other activities on the route such as cycling, running and horse riding.

The introduction of a walking route aligns with the move towards sustainable and responsible holidays, concentrating on eco-friendly, slow and authentic experiences. E-bike hire is now available at several outlets throughout Shetland and attractions like Garth’s Croft in Bressay are becoming very popular – demonstrating a commitment to traditional Shetland crofting techniques and engaging with the local community to provide the visitor with a fuller and more rewarding experience. Wildlife watching, kayaking, wild swimming and camping fall into this category and are all likely to continue growing in popularity in Shetland this year.

Filming for the latest two series of BBC’s Shetland detective drama took place in 2021 and with series seven due to air this spring, we can expect another significant ‘bounce’ for tourism. The last visitor survey in 2019 estimated that 38 per cent of all leisure visitors are inspired by TV programmes, with 87 per cent of those citing Shetland.

The effect of the programme has been profound and often elements of life in the islands unexpectedly capture the imagination of viewers. From series six, the Shetland phenomena of cake fridges gained widespread attention and many people appear keen to come and see this unusual way of retailing for themselves. The high quality of Shetland produce and hospitality has been brought to the fore in recent years by the efforts of Shetland Food and Drink and manager, Claire White, has recently been appointed Shetland’s Food Tourism Ambassador.

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Cruise ship anchoring off Lerwick. Photo: VisitScotland

With Lerwick Up Helly Aa and the rest of fire festival season cancelled this year, we haven’t had the normal traditionally lively start to the year once again, but Shetland has still had plenty to offer the intrepid visitor this winter as demonstrated by the latest Promote Shetland campaign Find your True North, with funding from VisitScotland’s Sector and Destination Marketing Fund.

Running alongside this has been a joint campaign between VisitScotland, NorthLink and Promote Shetland to mark the end of Scotland’s Year of Coast and Waters, which has produced phenomenal results on social media and digital.

The good news festival wise is that the Shetland Folk Festival is back this April to finally celebrate its 40th anniversary, with a line-up that is sure to attract music lovers from around the world once again.

Last year saw the welcome return of cruise ships to Lerwick, with a total of 18 calling eventually. This year we are hopeful of a full season of activity and perhaps a record one, with over 120 ships due to call and 100,000 passengers for the first time.

The town is obviously as popular with cruise lines and passengers as pre-pandemic and we look forward to the welcome boost this important sector of the tourism economy brings to businesses in Shetland and the buzz the passengers bring to our attractions and to the town.

Despite the tragic events playing out in Ukraine and the fact we continue to live with Covid-19, thesigns are positive that Shetland, as a tourism destination, is ready to benefit in 2022 from those elements that have drawn so many here in the past – a place where visitors can come to de-stress, slow down and appreciate the authenticity, the warm welcome and the open spaces, fresh air, spectacular landscapes and incredible wildlife of these islands.

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