Scottish finance minister John Swinney has lambasted the UK Border Agency for introducing “absurd and unnecessary” immigration checks which could hamstring Shetland’s ability to attract cruise ships.
The change, brought in at the tail end of the 2012 season, will require cruise ship passengers to undergo a full immigration check when arriving from overseas.
With cruise operators having to shoulder the cost of flying border agency officials north to carry out the checks, there are fears it could result in a decline in the lucrative trade.
Tour guides and other operators are also worried that a lengthy delay while hundreds of passengers go through immigration will erode the amount of time they spend on dry land.
Speaking at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Mareel on Monday morning, Mr Swinney said the Scottish Government would put together a delegation and lobby the border agency to have the changes overturned.
“I think the cruise ship regulations are frankly absurd,” he told this newspaper. “To add this complexity and burden and difficulty to the ability of visitors to go on cruises and conveniently access wonderful parts of the country like Shetland is to me just ludicrous.
“We had a very strong sense from the convention today of the need for us to tackle this issue head on. What I will arrange is for a very direct dialogue between the Scottish Government, leaders of the convention and the UK Border Agency to try and get some sense on this particular issue.”
He added: “When the cruise ships arrive, there is a limited window for the visitors to gain access to the islands and to be able to undertake their different visits. We have to make sure every opportunity is given to people to maximise their time on the islands.”
SIC convener Malcolm Bell said it was important to make it as easy as possible for tourists to see what the islands have to offer.
“Anything which puts a barrier in the way of passengers arriving is clearly not going to help showcase Shetland,” he said. “We will certainly support the government initiative to try and find a common sense and balanced approach.”
Last summer was a record season with 52 cruise ships paying a visit to Lerwick Harbour. In total they carried more than 37,000 passengers, generating significant tourist trade and considerable income for Lerwick Port Authority.
• The Scottish government will meet in Shetland – probably in Lerwick – in July. Mr Swinney announced the visit while in the town today.
It is the sixth year the government has held summer cabinet meetings outside Edinburgh and he said there would also be an open meeting which the public are encouraged to attend and put questions to the ministers.
Mr Swinney said: “The summer cabinet programme provides an excellent opportunity for the Scottish government to meet hundreds of people from communities across Scotland.
“The Highlands and Islands make a substantial contribution to Scotland’s economy and culture. I am delighted to announce at the Convention of Highlands and Islands today that my cabinet colleagues will be meeting in Shetland this summer to hear first hand about the issues important to the people of Shetland and to set out what the Scottish government is doing to support the growth and prosperity of these islands now and in the future.”