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Transport / Forward ferry bookings should be available in ‘very near future’, MSPs say after meeting transport minister

Photo: NorthLink Ferries

SCOTLAND’s transport minister has indicated that NorthLink ferry bookings from April onwards should open up soon.

It follows a meeting between Jenny Gilruth and Northern Isles MSPs Beatrice Wishart and Liam McArthur to discuss ferry issues.

Meanwhile there appears to be a pledge to re-examine operator Serco NorthLink’s decision not to open up shared cabin bookings following the Covid pandemic.

Frustration over people being unable to book journeys on the ferry service between the Northern Isles and the Scottish mainland from April onwards reared its head again this week.

Concerns were repeated that it could damage Shetland’s tourism prospects, while it also stops local residents and businesses from forward booking trips south in the Easter holidays and beyond.

Shetland News has already been contacted by holidaymakers from the Continent who have already spent hundreds, if not thousands, on ferry crossings to the UK and a holiday cottage in Shetland this summer – but they are unable to conclude their booking as neither NorthLink or Transport Scotland are able to advise as to when bookings on the Aberdeen to Shetland route will open.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart and Orkney MSP Liam McArthur.

Government agency Transport Scotland previously said the delay in opening up bookings beyond the end of March was due to fare prices not yet being set.

During the MSPs’ meeting Gilruth confirmed that an announcement was imminent, which would allow forward bookings to be made in the very near future.

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said unlike Calmac ferries on the west coast, the Northern Isles future bookings should open up in full and not in phases.

The MSPs also raised the issue of shared cabins and the knock-on impact the current ban is having on the value of islander vouchers and the cost of travel more generally.

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Gilruth is said to have acknowledged the problem and offered to look into how the value of concessionary vouchers could be protected in the event of any change to cabin policy.

The meeting also allowed McArthur the opportunity to stress again the importance of internal ferry services being included in the Scottish Government’s final Islands Connectivity Plan, which will succeed the National Ferries Plan later this year.

Scottish transport minister Jenny Gilruth in Lerwick last year. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

The government is always indicated that internal ferries in Orkney and Shetland – and their possible replacement with fixed links – is a matter for the local councils.

The MSPs suggested Gilruth indicated the omission of internal services would be addressed.

After the meeting Wishart said: “I am pleased to say that during my meeting with the transport minister on Wednesday she confirmed that the booking system will be updated imminently.

“I raised this matter repeatedly in correspondence and written questions in Parliament.

“This will be a relief to everyone looking to book travel from April onwards and to businesses who have been impacted unable to secure bookings in the hospitality sector.

“The Scottish Government needs to develop a new system to stop restricting travel and causing cut offs.”

Wishart also said regarding the ban on shared cabins: “Covid restrictions have eased since the beginning of the pandemic and Serco NorthLink should not continue to use it as an excuse.”

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