Shetland’s tourism industry is being “throttled” because of NorthLink’s summer sailing schedule, according to a key industry figure.
Chairman of the island’s tourism association Steve Henry said on Friday that extra sailings were crucial to allow a steady flow of visitors into the isles during the summer months.
He offered support for proposals from NorthLink to introduce daytime sailings to Kirkwall and back during busy times of the year.
Mr Henry spoke out at a ZetTrans meeting called to discuss, among other issues, a report from officials which suggested that the cancellation of winter sailings to make the extra summer sailings for NorthLink “cost neutral” rendered the proposal unworkable.
Hauliers and fish exporters in particular were opposed to the idea, claiming it would hamper their operations.
However Mr Henry said the extra sailings were needed to help maintain tourist numbers and that the sector was suffering because of a lack of capacity on the current NorthLink boats.
He told reporters after the meeting: “The tourism season is a very short period. Three months, maybe four if you take the beginning of the shoulder [season].
“Often you can’t get the tourists in and out of Shetland when we are at capacity in the boat. Nobody’s going to spend more money on their business to build their business up if they can’t fill the rooms.
“You can look at it in two different ways. Shetland’s population are not wanting to lose the ferries every night of the week.
“But we can’t get on the ferries every night of the week during the summer time because there is either no bunk capacity or you can’t get your car on.
“Is it better saying I know there are only going to be four ferries during the winter time, but I know what nights I can get on and off the island.
“Or, do you look at it in the summer time, that if you don’t book months beforehand you either can’t get your car on, or you can’t get a bunk.”
He said the ferries would ideally be replaced by smaller vessels when the contract comes up for renewal in 2012 to keep running costs down.
“How many ferries on the English Channel are sitting all day in port and just running at night? A ferry is only making money when it is moving.”
He said the winter schedule would see freight boats operating on nights when there were no passenger sailings, meaning freight which needed to be sent south could go on those vessels.
“The nights hauliers wouldn’t be sailing with the passenger ships, you would still have the freight boats on that days,” he said.
“More frequency in smaller boats, or in the boats we have just now, would mean that, for instance for the fish, they could be in the fish market for whatever time that suits. They could actually be down at the bottom of England by the next morning instead of just arriving in Aberdeen.”
ZetTrans agreed to forward all responses to NorthLink and the Scottish Government for consideration.
* Meanwhile, ZetTrans heard that Shetland’s air links with major cities down south could be under threat because of pressure at Heathrow Airport.
Representatives from consultancy firm Mott MacDonald warned slots at the major international hub could be auctioned off as capacity there for incoming flights gets tighter.
Director of aviation strategy Laurie Price told members of the transport partnership there were now only six points served from the UK regions into London Heathrow.
He said the smallest of those links – one of which is Aberdeen, a main connection for Sumburgh – could be squeezed out as concerns over costs rise.
“The first problem is there are now only six points served from the UK regions into London Heathrow. Aberdeen is probably now the smallest of those. If we don’t have another runway at Heathrow there is some potential for loss of frequency, or loss of service, and that would mean this region could lose its link to the hub and therefore to the wider network.
“You could see some cascading of larger aircraft replacing smaller aircraft. So unless you could protect those slots there could be potential for loss in the future.”
He said Shetland has been poorly served in terms of the cost of its air links with the rest of the UK. He suggested that a scheme similar to the Air Discount Scheme should be operated, which would allow cheaper air services to be operated for people flying into the isles as well as residents flying out.
“You’ve got something like 22,000 people living on this island, and then you’ve got visitors as well,” he said.