Ferry works spark economic concerns

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The Outer Hebrides Tourism group has repeated its call to the Minister for Transport and the Islands to take urgent action over the state of ferry services to the Outer Hebrides.

Calmac recently announced that the car service between Ullapool and Stornoway will be suspended from 20th April for five weeks causing disruption to tourism businesses and visitors to the Western Isles at the start of the peak visitor season, .

Calmac have also removed the online booking facility for the Ullapool-Stornoway route for the summer.

Donald Macarthur, a Director of Outer Hebrides Tourism, and its spokesman on Transport, said: “The very fact that the Scottish Government even think that doing this work in May is a viable option shows how out of touch and far removed they are from the communities which they are meant to serve.

“They are treating the population of the islands with a complete lack of respect.”

Ian Fordham, Chairman of Outer Hebrides Tourism added: “We are repeating our request to Derek Mackay MSP to come to the islands and convene an emergency summit on ferry services with local businesses, Calmac, local authority and other stakeholders to agree action, before there is irreparable damage to the islands’ economies.

“There are fundamental issues with all the services to the Outer Hebrides which have been ignored for too long, from Stornoway and the Butt to Barra, and now is the time for him to take an interest and act on this.”

Concerns over the disruption have also been raised by Island hauliers David Wood of Woody’s Express Ltd and from D.R. Macleod Ltd.

They have added their names to the list of island businesses demanding an urgent summit with the Scottish Government and its agencies to discuss the impact of the delays of the new ferry service on their own businesses and the long term impact of only having one ferry on the Stornoway-Ullapool route.

In a joint statement they said: “There is an urgent need for the Scottish Government and Caledonian MacBrayne to give us and the wider community answers to questions we’ve been asking for years.

“We and many others made the case for a two-ferry solution for the Stornoway-Ullapool route, but these pleas were ignored. We also share the concerns of our colleagues in the tourism industry that the unacceptable delay is already impacting the islands’ economy.

“When the current ferry, the Isle of Lewis came into service 20 years ago she greatly improved the level of service and helped develop the islands’ economy. Sadly, we are now seeing close to sixty million pounds being spent with little or no prospect of seeing the same positive economic impact over the next 20 years. “We fear the new arrangements will stifle and not aid economic development. We need an urgent and written assurance from the Scottish Government as to what contingency is in place should the Loch Seaforth break down.

“Every family and business in our islands depend on good, reliable and improving ferry services. Let’s get a meeting and get the answers the community deserve.”

Labourt’s prospective Parliamentary candidate for the 2015 General Election, Alasdair Morrison also highlighted called for a summit on the issue.

Speaking after meeting with representatives of the Outer Hebrides Tourism Industry Association, he said: “I was dismayed to learn that the debacle that is the Stornoway-Ullapool ferry saga has already resulted in losses for island tourism businesses.

“Tourism industry leaders told me they fear that the months of April and May will cause economic hardship for many of their businesses because of the delay and uncertainty surrounding ferry services to Lewis this year. The withdrawal of the ferry from 20 April for five weeks is shameful.

“Tourism is a hugely important industry for our islands it has developed over the years following hard work and investment by many individuals and businesses, helping to increase visitor numbers and increasing the number of people employed within the industry.”

Mr Morrison added: “It’s clear that the SNP Government has no real appreciation of the importance of fit for purpose ferry services for our islands. If they had they wouldn’t be scrambling around at the beginning of 2015 creating a Task Force to expedite the arrival of the Loch Seaforth, a ferry that should have been in service in October 2013.

“I have today written to the Minister for the Islands Derek Mackay asking him to immediately organise a meeting in the Islands, with tourism representatives, hauliers and others involved in business and wider community. I sincerely hope that our MSP and MP will support me in this matter. The time for politics is over - we now need immediate action.”

Works on Ullapool harbour were scheduled to begin on February 22nd for a period of six weeks when the linkspan would be closed for vehicles. But delays to the completion of works at Stornoway harbour have pushed back the Ullapool project until April 20th.

Talking about the works in this week’s Gazette Martin Dorchester, CalMac’s Managing Director, said: “Ongoing improvement work to Ullapool harbour, in particular, fitting the replacement linkspan has had to be delayed in light of continuing issues with the Stornoway harbour upgrade.

“The introduction of the new vessel Loch Seaforth to the route, and the Ullapool linkspan replacement is completely dependent on the completion of the Stornoway improvements.

“However, to allow passengers to plan their movements as much as possible, the closure is now planned to start on Monday, April 20th for a maximum of five weeks.

“While we will be planning alternative travel arrangements to commence from April 20th, this is still very much based on work in Stornoway being finished.”

During the work Calmac propose to ferry vehicles to the mainland on the MV Isle of Lewis from Stornoway to Uig, with Cal-Mac confirming a revised schedule during the disruption of: Up to two daily return sailings from Stornoway to Uig for passengers and vehicles; one daily return sailing from Stornoway to Uig for freight; two daily return sailings from Stornoway to Ullapool for passengers only; and an enhanced service (peak season level) on the Uig to Tarbert route.

Mr Dorchester added: “After talking to interested parties we believe these arrangements provide the best solution to this temporary but necessary closure. We have looked at all possible route options and this offers by far the best service for people impacted by these improvement works.

“I’m sorry for any inconvenience this work may cause but it is for the long term sustainability of the harbour. We will continue to monitor the performance and take up of these temporary routes as the work progresses and they may be subject to change dependent on the information we get.”