By RYAN TAYLOR
The problem of booking a bunk on NorthLink boats may have more to do with perception than reality, a transport forum heard this week.
A survey into travelling trends of residents and tourists found the majority of people were able to get a cabin while travelling to or from Aberdeen, despite a widespread belief they would have great difficulty finding somewhere to lay their heads.
Inverness-based economic consultant Tom Matthew told members of the SIC’s external transport forum only 29 per cent of those polled considered their chances of booking a cabin on their preferred sailing from June to August as “good” or “very good”.
However 95 per cent of residents were able to travel on their preferred sailing, or flight, on their most recent trip.
He said there could be a “perception” problem among residents in the isles, but added tourists coming to Shetland experienced fewer problems as well.
“The surveys show little evidence of capacity constraints having deterred potential visitors from travelling to Shetland.”
Overall, the survey found the majority of residents and tourists were happy with air and sea links to the isles, however many were unhappy with the cost of travel.
Last month plans to create extra sleeping space on the boats in the form of couchettes were abandoned after NorthLink bosses said they were not cost effective.
The findings of the survey, which will be fed into the Scottish government’s ferries review, would seem to suggest that decision may have been the right one to make.
Chairman of transport partnership ZetTrans Allan Wishart said there was possibly a silent majority who were happy with the status quo.
“We haven’t seen the full study which he [Mr Matthew] said was 100 pages long, but he did seem pretty precise about it and they must have done a certain amount of digging and asking questions of those they did approach to find that was the case.
“In a lot of circumstances there is a certain level of noise made about those who have been disappointed. There has obviously been a percentage that haven’t been able to get their first choice, but we don’t hear from those who do.”
He said many calling for couchettes on the boats may have been passengers who were able to get cabins themselves but do not like seeing people lying around on the boat.
Forum members heard transport services were seen as being reliable, with suitable arrival and departure times.
However cost did deter some potential visitors from coming to Shetland in the first place.
Cost of travel, the survey found, was a greater deterrent than any other transport-related factor, including the overall journey time to Shetland.
Mr Wishart said that showed there was a need for a scheme similar to the Road Equivalent Tariff, which was launched last year for communities in the Western Isles, but not Orkney, Shetland or the Argyll islands.
“The biggest drawback seems to be high costs and that is why we should have RET trialling here. The argument you get is it’s cheaper per mile to travel from Aberdeen to Lerwick than it is to go from Ullapool to Stornoway.
“But it’s not ‘per mile’ people are worried about. They’re worried because they are having to dig into their pockets and produce a lot more money than they would if they were going to the Western Isles.
“You’re taking 12 to 14 hours out of a day and night, compared with the two or three hours it takes to get to Stornoway.”
Other findings showed Shetland companies make up to 86 per cent of their business trips by air, although they do rely on shipping for the movement of goods to and from the islands.
On mainland ferry ports, most people still prefer Aberdeen as an important destination, with 73 per cent of residents stating a preference for the granite city, compared with just five per cent who would like to opt for Rosyth.
The city’s onward transport links compared favourably with those of the Fife port, or the other alternative of Peterhead.
Travel in Shetland to Sumburgh Airport also came under the spotlight. The survey found only four per cent of residents and 10 per cent of visitors used the bus service on their most recent trip.
Over 1,200 telephone interviews were conducted with Shetland residents to compile the information for the report.
There were a further 402 face to face interviews with visitors leaving the isles by ferry, and another 400 interviews with tourists leaving by air.
Over 1,400 on line interviews were made with with visitors who requested a brochure from VisitScotland.
A further 30 face to face and telephone interviews were conducted with Shetland businesses.