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Transport / Solutions sought after people were unable to use public bus ‘full of tourists’ when cruise was in town

MORE concern has been expressed about the impact an influx of cruise ship tourists can have on local transport services after it was claimed a southend bus had to refuse passengers for most of its route – from Dunrossness to Lerwick – as it was already full.

The bus in question was the number six from Sumburgh to Lerwick on Saturday afternoon (30 March), which coincided with the start of this year’s cruise ship season in Shetland.

The matter was first raised on social media at the weekend by Stephen Ferguson, who said his son had been due to go on the bus.

He said he spoke to the driver when it arrived in Lerwick and was told that it was full after cruise tourists got on the bus in Sumburgh, where people can visit Jarlshof and the lighthouse.

It has also been claimed that the visiting passengers had allegedly taken the public bus so they did not have to wait on chartered coaches, which are pre-arranged for cruise passengers who want taken around Shetland on day trips.

One person unable to get on the public bus in Sandwick was 78-year-old Christine Manson, who cannot drive and was needing to get to Lerwick to visit her unwell husband in hospital.

She said was “very disappointed” that she could not get on and said the most vexing part was that it meant she had less time to spend with her husband.

Manson said the driver had asked if anyone was willing to get off to make space for her, but there were no takers.

But she said she does not blame the passengers for not getting off as they would have to wait for the next bus. Manson lives in the village and got the next bus to town.

She also questioned if a minibus could have been sent to pick up any people waiting along the route given that capacity issues were known near the start of the journey.

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Ferguson, a candidate in the council elections in 2022, added: “There needs to be communication with the service providers and the tour operators/cruise companies to ensure that the tourists are not impacting our lifeline services. It’s not good enough.

“Particularly when there are dedicated runs and services provided for these people. Tourism should enhance the local economy and be an advert for the entire Shetland community. It should never be to its detriment.”

Lead officer of Shetland transport partnership ZetTrans Michael Craigie said that public bus services are available for “everyone to use” but confirmed the agency had received reports of capacity constraints on service six on Saturday.

“We are working alongside the operator to ensure we understand the detail of the circumstances,” he said.

MSC Virtuosa, sister ship to MSC Meraviglia (pictured beyond) will be the largest cruise ship yet to visit Lerwick Harbour. Photo: John Coutts

“Dealing with ad hoc peaks is a challenge for any transport network that is constrained by funding and available resources.

“If additional investment is thought necessary then a case for that investment must be made and considered alongside other priorities.

“This requires proper consideration by ZetTrans and Shetland Islands Council members before changes, if any, can be made. Once I have more detail on this and a better sense of any likely reoccurrence, I will report the detail to ZetTrans for consideration.”

Craigie said that in the meantime ZetTrans welcomes all feedback in relation to the public bus services and “would very much encourage both current and prospective passengers to get involved with the upcoming bus network review, from which we will shape the next generation of bus services”.

ZetTrans chair councillor Moraig Lyall said she was not in a position to comment directly on Saturday’s issue.

She did confirm though that everyone who travelled to Sumburgh on a tour bus also returned on a tour bus.

Lyall also reiterated that there is an upcoming bus network review in which various issues can be looked at.

She added that it can also be challenging to get a bus network in Shetland that suits demand.

“For every complaint we get about a bus like that that’s crowded, we get an equal one that says all these buses are running around with nobody on them,” the Shetland Central councillor said.

It comes after a wheelchair user said last year that she was left in Levenwick waiting for a service six bus to Lerwick for more than two hours – because ones that did pass were full up apparently due to the number of cruise ship visitors on board.

Lerwick Port Authority said this year’s cruise season is expected to be Shetland’s largest yet, with an estimated 130,000 passengers due to arrive in Lerwick on nearly 150 ships in what is hailed as another positive boost to the local tourism sector.

The first vessel of the season was the 1,200 capacity Ambition, which arrived into Lerwick on Saturday.

The port authority’s cruise and marketing manager Melanie Henderson said: “Tour buses on the quayside awaiting arriving cruise passengers are arranged by cruise lines to meet pre-booked demand and are designed to maximise visitors’ experience of the islands on guided programmes.

“Cruise passengers who want to explore independently, like any visitors, have the option of using the local bus network for travel around the island.

“We are not directly involved in organising buses, but are aware of the situation and regret anyone being inconvenienced. We continue to engage with stakeholders regarding the demand in peak times from the seasonal and occasional nature of cruise tourism.

“Finding ways to make appropriate improvements to the transport infrastructure serving the public, whilst supporting an important contributor to the Shetland economy, is complex with limited island resources and the challenges faced by the supply chain.”

Shetland South councillor Alex Armitage, who represents the Scottish Greens, has long called for free public transport for all – as well as more bus services in the south mainland in the evening.

Shetland South councillor Alex Armitage.

He said it is “clearly wrong” if there were large groups of visitors with transport already organised displacing folk from the bus service, “and we need to have some urgent conversations with tour operators to reduce the chances of this happening again”.

“There is a wider issue here,” Armitage added.

“It used to be a common sight to see buses travelling empty around Shetland, but now our buses are getting busier and busier.

“Tourism is one reason, but there are many others too: the free bus travel policy [for under 22s] introduced by the Greens in 2022 is one, another is the increase in the cost of running a car, and people using the bus to as part of their personal action on the climate emergency.

“In my view, there needs to be more investment in our public transport system. More capacity in our system would enable much more people to travel without constraint, and without having to rely on a car.”

When asked about the idea of a visitor or cruise levy going towards bolstering public transport on days liners are in Lerwick, Armitage said it was something worth looking at, but services would need to be designed to at least pay for themselves.

“I would oppose our public bus budget subsidising the cruise ship industry,” he added.

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