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Election / Candidates share concern over tourist centre closures

Lerwick tourist office. Photo: Jim Mullay

ALL six election candidates for the Orkney and Shetland constituency have voiced their concern about plans to close tourist offices in Lerwick and Kirkwall – with many advocating greater local control.

It was confirmed by VisitScotland recently that the Lerwick centre would shut its doors in November as part of a wider programme of closures across the country, with Kirkwall following in September 2025.

The Scottish Government agency said the controversial decision follows significant changes to the way people plan their holidays with most using online resources and travel specialists to research and book all aspects of their trips.

Shetland Tourism Association (STA) chair Amanda Hawick said the organisation is keen to explore its options for potentially taking on the Lerwick building.

But she said the STA would have to change its constitution due to the legalities and funding situation.

“These things will take time, but with VisitScotland dropping the bombshell without a shred of consideration on the timelines involved to make a seamless take over is nothing short of a disgrace and I questions their credibility for their role in Scottish tourism,” she said.

A representative from Development Trusts Association Scotland has been invited to an STA committee meeting later this month to speak about the matter.

It comes after Shetland’s external transport forum heard recently that bookings on the NorthLink ferry service continue to grow.

Demand still growing for NorthLink ferry service, meeting hears

Shetland News contacted all of the candidates who are competing in the Northern Isles in the upcoming 4 July election to gather their thoughts.

In alphabetical order, Alex Armitage of the Greens said he was “devastated” that the Lerwick office stands to close.

“Tourism is one of Shetland’s key industries for the future,” he added. “I believe the decision on whether or not to have a tourist office should be made in Shetland.

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“I support more Shetland autonomy; if elected I will work to bring more power over decisions like this to Shetland.”

Armitage referred to the Tórshavn tourist office in the self-governing Faroe, which he said was an “integrated and fully functioning part of the thriving local economy”.

“From a wider perspective, I see this as part of the wider collapse of public services in this country,” the Green candidate said.

“The UK public sector is running out of money – we should ask ourselves why this is, when we live in one of the richest countries on the planet. The reason governments are running out of money is because our economy is rigged to enrich billionaires at the expense of people and the environment.”

Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael said he could understand that the role of VisitScotland has changed over the years and that “they no longer see the same need for offices like the ones in Lerwick and Kirkwall”.

“But anyone spending five minutes in them on a busy day can see that they are definitely needed,” he said.

“They may no longer be the route to people booking stays here, but they are certainly an essential part of improving the visitor experience of those who do.

“That, in turn, must contribute to our levels of repeat business.  I very much hope, therefore, that some way is found for local bodies to take these offices on and run them for the continued benefit of our local visitor economy.

“This is another example of how changes which may make sense at a national level do not suit our local needs – and why it is important to return more power from the Central Belt to our communities to decide on what works best for us.”

Robert Leslie, who is standing for the SNP, said the decision to close the centres “flies in the face” of tourist demand in the Northern Isles, especially when cruise ships are visiting.

“I would be keen to help find a solution that would allow local control of the tourist centre, as it is not that many years ago that the islands had control of their own tourist organisations and the time seems right to revisit that in both island areas,” he added.

Tourism continues to be a growing industry in Shetland. Photo: Shetland News

“There are few folk better placed to know the kind of service that visitors are looking for than those on the ground in the islands, and it seems clear that they would be best place to make decisions on local provision levels.

“This is yet another example of the need to take decision-making as close as possible to the issues to be decided upon.”

Conservative candidate Shane Painter said he was “strongly opposed” to the closures, adding that they are “crucial hubs” for visitors.

“Tourism is a cornerstone of our local economy, bringing essential revenue and supporting numerous businesses and jobs in our communities,” he continued.

“The presence of these visitor centres helps ensure that tourists can make the most of their visit, encouraging longer stays and increased spending.

“While I appreciate that VisitScotland operates under the Scottish Government, the impact of these closures extends beyond administrative boundaries and affects the broader community and economy of Orkney and Shetland.

“The strong local opposition to this decision highlights the importance of these centres to our residents and businesses alike.

“I urge all stakeholders to reconsider these closures and to explore alternative solutions that can sustain these essential services. Maintaining the visitor centres in Lerwick and Kirkwall is crucial for the continued support and growth of our tourism sector.”

Labour candidate Conor Savage felt it was “hard to believe” that VisitScotland is considering closing the two centres in the Northern Isles.

“Orkney and Shetland have a vast amount of visitors who are looking for on-the-ground local knowledge when they arrive – this would be very hard to replace with an online resource,” he said.

“If you look at visitors per head of population, these idyllic isles are incredibly busy – especially when there are cruise ships in town.

“These centres have lots of leaflets, maps and memorable keepsakes and souvenirs for sale.

“I would hope that the Islands’ councils, or local groups, could save these centres, perhaps with a local tourism organisation taking up running them and keeping the present staff onboard – as they already have plenty of expertise in this line of work. We simply can’t lose these valuable resources.”

Robert Smith, who is representing Reform UK, also highlighted a lack of accommodation in the Northern Isles during peak periods.

“I think the tourist office closure is part of a direction of travel instituted at a much higher level than ScotGov,” he said.

“You can’t get to Orkney and Shetland because of lack of space on the ferries and over-regulation of the airlines meaning they are completely unreliable.

“If you manage to get here, there’s nowhere to stay due to short term lets being regulated out of business. This is either by design or the result of stupidity. Pick one.”

VisitScotland said the decision to close the Lerwick centre on 18 November came after “careful consideration of several factors including staffing, local arrangements, property commitments and stakeholder engagement”.

Kirkwall is part of a second phase of closures, with VisitScotland adding that final dates may be subject to change depending on local circumstances.

VisitScotland said by closing the centres it will be focusing on “influencing visitors at the planning stage before they leave home”.

It added that it would invest its expertise and resources in a “digital-first strategy”.

“We will target channels we know visitors use to inspire and influence where they go, when they come and what they do, ensuring Scotland is a ‘must visit, must return’ destination,” the organisation said.

VisitScotland added that there would be no compulsory redundancies across its closure of information centres.

Read more about the six Orkney and Shetland election candidates here.

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