Visitor numbers up but spending is down

Visitors to Shetland are spending less than they were eight years ago, an extensive survey of tourism and business travelers has suggested.

The value of visitors to Shetland for 2012-2013 was £16 million, representing a decrease of over £2 million compared to the inflation adjusted figure for 2006. Visitors to the Western Isles, by contrast, spent almost £54 million whilst those to Orkney spent over £31 million.

Visitor numbers were up from 60,000 in 2005 to 65,000 in the year from October 2012 to September 2013 with holiday and business visitors both accounting for 41 per cent of the total while folk visiting friends and relatives accounted for the remaining 18 per cent.

The figures were revealed in a survey undertaken by Scotinform Limited and Reference Economics on behalf of a number of organisations. Similar surveys were carried out in Orkney and the Western Isles. The cost of getting to Shetland appeared to put people off planning a return visit however.

Steve Mathieson is
Steve Mathieson is “very pleased” with the increase in visitor numbers.

Visit Shetland manager Steve Mathieson said that overall he was “very pleased” with the survey, which showed Shetland was “on the right track” for delivering a tourist experience.

“What this survey does show is what a fantastic place we have here and the friendliness of the people,” Mr Mathieson added. “This shows we are on the right direction and we have to keep going.”

Mr Mathieson attributed the drop in spending to the tough economic times which meant that people had less spare cash.

Business visits showed the biggest growth with 4,400 more business visitors than in 2006 compared with 2,000 more tourists, while family visitor numbers dropped by 1,600.

However business visitors accounted for 46 per cent of total spend, with £279 spent per head, and tourists accounted for 42 per cent, at £258 per head while family visitors spent only £169. Only six per cent of spend was on local food and produce.

Some 60 per cent of business and family visitors flew to Shetland but the majority of tourists took the ferry. Male visitors outnumbered females at 60 per cent and over half of all visitors were travelling alone – reflecting the large number of business visitors.

The Shetland Museum and Archive was named
The Shetland Museum and Archives was the most used visitor attraction.

The survey results were based on 1,259 face-to-face visitor interviews with 368 online responses. Shetland scored particularly highly on the quality of accommodation and the friendliness and efficiency of service. There was also good marks for the quality of visitor attractions with Shetland museum and Archives the biggest draw with 57 per cent of visitors paying a visit, ahead of Sumburgh Head which 34 per cent visited.

The most frequent activities undertaken by visitors were short walks, followed by coastal scenery and shopping for local crafts and produce. Holiday makers were more likely to undertake activities.

Just under half of visitors were from other parts of Scotland and they spent £6 million in Shetland while one-third were from other parts of the UK and spent £5 million. People from other EU countries and abroad made up the rest but spent a large proportion at £4 million.

Whilst 79 per cent of visitors were “very satisfied” with their overall experience, this was lower than Orkney and the Western Isles, both rated at 87 per cent. The numbers “very likely to return” told a similar story, with 61 per cent of visitors to the Western Isles and 51 per cent of visitors to Orkney ticking that box instead of only 50 per cent of Shetland visitors.

Mr Mathieson attributed this to the cost and time of travel to Shetland and the fact that far more visitors to Orkney and the Outer Hebrides were likely to be day trippers, while people were inclined to plan their trips to Shetland further in advance than to the other island groups.


Add Your Comment
  • ian mcewan

    • February 12th, 2014 13:30

    this single biggest issue for anyone visiting the isles is the cost of getting here. Staying here without a car is pointless unless you are looking for solitude. A car is nigh on essential and to bring one up and have a cabin on the ferry is quite frankly prohibitive and for a domestic journey a disgrace.

  • Robert Duncan

    • February 12th, 2014 23:34

    Whilst I’ve been a bit frustrated with how well they link up sometimes (there is clearly very little cooperation between FlyBe and Leasks, for example), our bus network is really quite good for the sort of area it covers. Certainly too good to deserve comments such as, “staying here without a car is pointless”. Many residents manage just fine, never mind tourists.

    Another quote I read had the top attractions as Shetland Museum, Sumburgh Head and Scalloway Castle, all of which are easily accessible by bus.

    • Robert Duncan

      • February 12th, 2014 23:36

      Easily accessible for by bus for the able bodied, I should probably say. I accept the short hike from the nearest bus stop to Sumburgh Head isn’t possible for everybody.

    • Johan Adamson

      • February 13th, 2014 9:34

      Easily accessible by bus from where?

      You also need a cabin on the boat for overnight travel which is more expensive than other ferries. Factor that in and it becomes expensive, for local families too.

  • Robert Duncan

    • February 13th, 2014 19:25

    “Easily accessible by bus from where?”

    I have personal experience of buses to and from the Westside, Scalloway, Burra, Levenwick, Bigton and Sumburgh. Whilst it may all be routed through Lerwick, those routes are very well serviced. It would be perfectly possible to have a day trip to Sumburgh from Walls, for example.

    I cannot speak for the North Mainland but that seems to have frequent coverage too. The isles may be different a story, I have only taken the bus to Whalsay once and admittedly wasn’t going further than Symbister.

    • Johan Adamson

      • February 14th, 2014 9:22

      I dont think it is possible to have a day trip to Sumburgh from Walls. Please explain the itinerary. Imagine I have rented a house in West Burrafirth.

      I have given a lift before to people staying in the bod at Nesbister. They hadnt realised just how far it was. Even if I took them in the road, they still have a fair hike with shopping to the bod. Im sure they would have thought that it would be better with a car. I wouldnt go to Orkney without a car.

      • Robert Duncan

        • February 14th, 2014 17:44

        “I dont think it is possible to have a day trip to Sumburgh from Walls. Please explain the itinerary.”


        0755 – Leave Walls
        0845 – Arrive in Lerwick
        0915 – Leave Lerwick (nice break for coffee/tea in between)
        ~1000 – Arrive Sumburgh (depending on where exactly you want to go)
        1530 – Leave Sumburgh
        1600 – Arrive Lerwick
        1705 – Leave Lerwick
        1750 – Arrive Walls

        And a great day had by all!

        If I were doing it myself, I’d do it on a Saturday. Then I could arrive head back to Lerwick later, catch a film at Mareel, have dinner at the Museum, and leave for Walls on the 2230 bus. And yes, waiter, I will have a glass of wine, thank you, I’ve not got the car after all!

        “Imagine I have rented a house in West Burrafirth.”

        West Burrafirth is not covered by that Walls route, and I can’t say I’m familiar with the Aith route that it would link in to. I would assume — from the quality of the feeder buses that link in to that Walls route from the likes of Sandness and Culswic — that there is a similar set up from West Burrafirth, but I cannot speak with any certainty on that.

        I’d say given the location of West Burrafirth and the size of that community that it would be quite unreasonable to expect perfect public transport and perhaps you should take a car if that is somewhere you wish to stay. It doesn’t change the fact that the bus services in Shetland are very good, and does not make visiting Shetland without a car “pointless”, as you there are plenty of other accommodation options available.

        “I have given a lift before to people staying in the bod at Nesbister. They hadnt realised just how far it was. Even if I took them in the road, they still have a fair hike with shopping to the bod. Im sure they would have thought that it would be better with a car. I wouldnt go to Orkney without a car.”

        I’ve stayed in the Nesbister bod a couple of times myself, and reached it by bus on both occasions. Both the Aith and Walls services pass a stop reasonably nearby. Whether you have a car or not, you have to walk 300-400m over the marshy land toward the beach; we were advised on booking not to attempt that even with a 4×4.

      • Johan Adamson

        • February 17th, 2014 12:24

        Thanks Robert.

        I dont fancy it much with bairns and dogs to consider and the run in from the Walls bus to Wast Burrafirth, but I am obviously lazy, and have bairns, along with quite a few other visitors I would think. And my choice would be a get away from it all cottage, so I therefore need a car.

      • Robert Duncan

        • February 17th, 2014 18:43

        I can respect that, I know a long day trip like that isn’t for everybody. My own views of public transport are no doubt influenced by my mother never having driven, and taking my siblings and me on trips like that when we were younger. I always found the bus journeys differentiated the trip from a typical run in my father’s car and made it feel like an adventure for a young mind; I’m also perfectly aware that some children would hate it and have a boredom induced tantrum before the first transfer. To each their own, but the option is certainly there for those without a car.

  • David Wilson

    • February 13th, 2014 20:51

    It’s a sad fact that a week in Shetland for a sassenach like me costs more than a week in New York when Serco’s exhorbitant car ferry/cabin/meal/bar tariffs and the islands’ prepostrous fuel prices are factored in. That doesn’t mean that I’d rather visit the Big Apple over my beloved Shetland , but it does put the place into context from a cost to the tourist perspective. It’s not all about geography, I’m afraid.

  • John Tulloch

    • February 14th, 2014 9:57

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, there, Robert.

    ‘All roads lead to Rome’.

    It was ever thus and it’s the root of many problems in Shetland – Lerwick-centricism!

    • Robert Duncan

      • February 14th, 2014 17:46

      I’m not sure what you would suggest as an alternative? The only route that would see much of a diversion due to the Lerwick hub would be from the Westside to the northern half of Shetland, the others either involve transfers further up the line, or more or less go through Lerwick anyway.

    • Robert Sim

      • February 14th, 2014 22:46

      Indeed, John. In no other part of rural Scotland do bus timetables take account of travel to the main town. I was brought up in the Oban area and no Argyll or Glasgow-based buses ever travel there. Makes it a bit inconvenient for anyone trying to access the shops, businesses and entertainment which are concentrated in Oban but that’s life.

  • Paul Moar

    • February 14th, 2014 15:12

    I think this is a wake-up call. The fact that only 50% said they would return tells me something is wrong.

    Yes, the cost of a holiday to Shetland is a major factor but I personally think there’s a deeper issue.

    Whilst Shetland is hard to beat on a beautiful summer’s day, if you get a week of wind and rain there’s nowhere worse.

    We can’t control the weather, but I have long lamented Shetland’s dour architecture and frankly I wouldn’t want to spend almost £1000 to drive along looking at hillsides of drab, grey houses on a grey, rainy day.

    Just yesterday I was actually talking with a work colleague about tourism in Shetland and we both agreed that so, so much more could and should be done.

    In closing, I was told of an incident by a friend who was approached down at the Esplanade in Lerwick last year by a visitor from a cruise ship and asked “is this it?”.


    • Johan Adamson

      • February 17th, 2014 12:31

      Im with you, I think theres more that can be done.

      Road equivalent tariff would be a start. Better customer service, in all sectors, probably.

      Orkney are better at this. They have more tourists, they treat them better, so they get more tourists.

      On the plus side, we are much better than we used to be.

    • Jean MacFarlane

      • July 18th, 2014 13:35

      Well a person from a cruise ship is going to have a different set of expectations. That is why they are on a cruise ship. As a resident of Bermuda for 40 years I have seen what catering to cruise ships has done to the quality of the visitor experience. Shetland has its wild beauty to offer, and I think there is something to be said for the quality of the visitor that makes the effort to get there. I rarely saw the sun when I was in Shetland, but it didn’t matter. Everyone was friendly, from the Shetlander who befriended me on the ferry to my B&B host. The food was very good, lamb and the best fish I have had anywhere, without the pretentiousness of “world class restaurants”. I will be back!

  • Ian Raymond

    • February 14th, 2014 20:27

    Have to be honest to some of the above, from an outsider the bus service on Shetland ain’t that bad (though the timetables on the web are indecipherable!) I’ve been coming to your wonderful Islands since I was at Uni, and as a non-driver I’ve still been able to explore and stay in Unst, the South Mainland, Trondra and parts of the Westside. Yes, buses could be better and more frequent, but it’s not hindered me, especially coupled with hiring a cycle from the Grantfield Garage, and the costs of getting a taxi aren’t as bad as in (i.e.) parts of Snowdonia. If anything, not using a car has meant more time to explore around where I’ve been staying, to meet and chat with people.
    People are right to say the ferry’s costly – even more than in the days of P&O – but an even bigger issue in the cost of getting to Shetland is the absolutely ridiculous constantly rising UK rail fares to get to Aberdeen in the first place. What I’ve had to pay to get from Liverpool to Aberdeen is more than it costs me on Amtrak from Chicago to San Fran, or London to Berlin on the City Night Line – and you can never book an advance rail ticket as the weather always plays havoc with ferry schedules! Perhaps the council/tourist board should campaign for through rail&sail fares like those to Ireland…?
    Yep it’s expensive to visit Shetland… but for those of us who do, it’s always worth it, whatever the weather. I’ve worked for a tourist board so I know you’ll always get some visitors deterred by distance from the nearest ‘big’ airport… But perhaps if it was a bit cheaper the rest of us might be able to visit more often…?

  • Pamela Nunn

    • February 15th, 2014 3:36

    We made the mistake of coming right after Christmas. Everything was closed, couldn’t take family out for a nice meal anywhere. Tourist attractions closed. Nothing fresh available in the supermarkets to buy to cook. We were visiting family but now meet up with them on mainland UK or Europe as it cost as much to get to Shetland from London as it did to fly to UK from Canada.
    Not good value and our mistake for not understanding the off season.

  • John Tulloch

    • February 15th, 2014 9:38

    These comparisons of travel costs – Liverpool/Aberdeen vs Chicago/San Francisco and London/Shetland vs Canada/London are shocking.

    A ‘Road-equivalent Tariff’ for Aberdeen/Shetland travel would be a start.

    There are too many low load factor flights for the air service to be cheap and these are arranged at odd hours to facilitate business day trips as far London or, even, Europe.

    If there was, say, one (or two?) flight(s) per day at popular times with cheap fares, they would probably be full and attract additional customers.

    It would, presumably, not make that much difference to the already poorly-attended ‘red-eye’, etc, flights if they were no longer subsidised by ‘ordinary’ travellers and prices rose accordingly; anyone going to London or Brussels on business can presumably afford to get off Shetland?

    It’s standard practice nowadays that if you want ‘frills’ like heavy luggage or travel at a special time, you pay extra.

    • Robert Duncan

      • February 15th, 2014 20:04

      FlyBe have already announced their intention to start using larger planes, as demand has been so high recently. I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest the current timetabling is unsuitable for people.

      I also take issue with your comment about business trips; I think there’s far more need to support local companies trying to conduct business on the mainland, than to subsidise the rest of us going off on our jollies to Tenerife. Whilst a holiday can be planned several months in advance at the lowest cost, a sales meeting might be agreed the week before.

      In any case, I have often flown on the earliest flight and have never found it poorly attended. I’m not sure I’ve been on any plane from Sumburgh that was less than 50% full, and that is despite flying very regularly in the past 18 months.

  • fraser cluness

    • February 16th, 2014 11:03

    the best things shetland had are for free, great outdoors, nowhere can match that, however they can compeat with things to do, we have very little visitor centres and wet weather activitys unlike other places. For most on the mainland they can just go to the next town for more – not so easy when your here.

    So off the top of my head, what do my visitors do on a wet day? first class museum for sure, – cafe you need to book to get a coffee (unless your lucky). Cinema next door, but then my visitors do have several, upto 14 screen cinemas to hand in their hometowns, so our small screens isna realy a pull, pluss anything on here will be on at home next week, the cafe isna much of an attraction either. We do have heaps of little cake/coffee shops intown though, all are good. Not that ive been in the pubs in lerwick for a long time but i have in in good note that they are all exactly the same since 1980/90s and could all be discribed as much the same. (unless they have local mucic on) so not much compertition on that mark. So, if your into sporty things then they are always clickimin, if your not then. thats no intrest.

    so a trip to the county, sandwick has a summer visitor centre packed full of old radios, and a nice cafe, sumburgh will have the lighthouse etc. what else in in the south mainland? ok so lets go out west. Bonhoga is ok mostly, for what ive seen, boring arty farty art, helifa expencive shop with stuff bought in from south, but i do apprecate some folk like that, but if you come from south you will have heaps of this on the mainland coming oot your lugs, nice cafe, but understaffed in peek times. I always recomend go to the museum in lerwick or visit some of the excelent arty shops in lerwick. and save your pertol. cant think what else is out west unless the leasure centre(sport again)?? so off up north then? Brae, has drumquin and frankies, mid brae in and the hotel, all good food ive eather experenced myself or heard good reports. esseness has an top class cafe! the islands have simiuler small atractions. so without going on and on you can see unless you want food and drink they isna realy a lot to spend your money on. Especialy on a wet day. no nice big garden centres, play centres for the kids or other atractions. This is where we can develope for more things for visitors to go to to part with their money! just think about it, if you got landed with a wad of visitors who have all of the above in their bic citys south what would you take them to see on a wet day? gets harder if you exclude alcolhol establemnents. just a thought!

    • Ian Raymond

      • February 17th, 2014 22:08

      Wow, that makes it all sound so negative – always found plenty to do when I’ve visited. Yep when the weather’s “on one” there’s not much to do but retreat to the nearest cafe/hostelry but that’s also the case if you visit much of Snowdonia / Connemara / Peak District / Hebrides / etc. But I’m sure a lotta people like me visit Shetland & put up with all that as it’s unique, we don’t just want somewhere that emulate what we can do at home, and often arrive having done our research anyway into what’s on, where to go and how tempestuous the weather can be.
      Not saying there *couldn’t* be more attractions/etc developed, and the more money visitors can spend the better, just be wary of doing something because somewhere else does it – that won’t always work. (Your list is pretty comprehensive, but to add to that, Scalloway Castle’s good for an hour on wet days, and really looking forward to visiting the new Scalloway museum on my next trip – if the second-hand bookshop is still there, I’ve spent a while in there during showers! Other things on wet days have included taking a guided tour – and of course, using the swimming pools as there always seems to be one fairly nearby, not just Clickimmin. Don’t underestimate the importance of those facilities!)
      Thinking in terms of ‘strengths’, purely off the top of my head working in tourism, developments could be (and I’m sure there’s a thousand other far more appropriate ideas out there): a) A visitor centre / tastings at the Valhalla Brewery b) An undercover wildlife-watch type centre somewhere, equipped with camera feeds and interactive displays for the kids c) An indoor climbing wall/ropes somewhere for the young & not so young d) Creating a ‘cold war’ museum up near old RAF Saxavord, detailing how the UK used to eavesdrop on the USSR… Gotta be an EU grant in there somewhere for things like that; the problem is always going to be in the ‘quiet season’ – how on earth do you get the punters in to pay for this stuff and its ongoing upkeep when September goes? Perhaps that’s when the ferry should be offering ‘bargain berths’ for advance bookings, like the Scotrail Sleeper?

  • Ali Inkster

    • February 16th, 2014 22:22

    The huge difference in fares compared to the western Isles might go a long way to explain the huge difference in visitor numbers. But when we do get folks to visit these isles a few more good quality restaurants and cafes might encourage them to part with a bit more cash. I don’t know about the western isles but you can eat out in Orkney twice a day for a fortnight without visiting the same establishment twice or being dissatisfied with your meal. Whereas here you would struggle to fill a long weekend. I travel a lot and spending on food can quite often far exceed all other expenses, money willingly parted with if quality matches price. A holiday spoiled by by inclement weather can be saved by good restaurants and pubs and apart from a few exceptions we are lacking in both.

  • James Howitt

    • February 17th, 2014 2:21

    Southampton – Sumburgh (Flybe) – 2 Adults and one infant £600
    Heathrow – TRNC via Istanbul £400.

    Sums it up really. However when flying the expensive bit is into Sumburgh. However the little’un will need to see Shetland at some stage, so we will do our bit for the Islands economy in August.

  • leslie sinclair

    • February 17th, 2014 6:48

    I am thinking of travelling by train to Aberdeen at 8.55am from Morpeth.
    Then if cheaper than the plane, taking the boat to Lerwick (return).
    Returning from Aberdeen to Newcastle by Megabus then small train to Morpeth from Newcastle. I may take this journey in June but whatever way I travel it will be expensive.


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