Tourism operators in Lewis and Harris are experiencing a huge loss of trade due to the current ferry disruption on the Stornoway-Ullapool route.
With a passenger-only service on MV Loch Seaforth for a one month period up to May 18 while essential works are carried out on Ullapool pier, the diversion of traffic through Uig seems to have discouraged visitors from coming to the islands.
Donald Macarthur, OHT (Outer Hebrides Tourism) Director said the impact of the disruption had been much worse than they had anticipated.
He said: “Many operators have just decided to close down because it is so quiet. Those that have remained open are struggling to cover costs. The next couple of weeks looks like being just as quiet.”
He added that many sailings on the Uig-Tarbert route were already fully booked online meaning that if visitors wished to travel to Harris, they wouldn’t be able to do so.
Gordon Macleod from Laxdale Holiday Park said they had not seen any drop in self catering bookings but had seen a significant reduction in motorhome and caravan trade.
He added: “Much of our touring trade does not book in advance so only the next few weeks will tell how much the ferry disruption will affect us. I am expecting the down turn in touring bookings to be reflected in the passing trade as well.”
With Loch Seaforth carrying only passengers, there has been an additional pressure on public transport links from Ullapool - with some customers reporting difficulties in booking services due to only one bus being provided.
A spokesperson for Scottish Citylink said providing a quality service which meets demand was their priority.
They said they were continuously monitoring demand and that extra vehicles were added if required.
Mr Macarthur, OHT Director, added that despite the current difficulties, the season ahead looked set to be a busy one: “As soon as the service is restored to Ullapool again around the middle of May everywhere is busy again,” he said. “In fact the advance bookings for late May and June are very encouraging.”
However, he also pointed out that OHT had been monitoring the booking system over the last few weeks and found that MV Loch Seaforth was full online 28 times already.
He said: “It is disappointing to say the least that after a near £70million infrastructure project the new service is unable to meet the demand during the first busy holiday season.”
He pointed out that this situation could have been avoided the Scottish Government had listened to the view from the island community - including the hauliers and the Comhairle - that a single ferry replacement was not the best option.
He added: “The ferry connections to the islands is the very lifeblood of the community. Our current and future prosperity lives and dies on the level of service provided. It is therefore vital from now on the planning and development of ferry services fully involve the local community.
Transport Scotland and Caledonian Maritime AssetsLtd (CMAL) have stressed that MV Loch Seaforth as a larger vessel can provide the capacity needed on the route and can operate both freight and passenger services round the clock with greater reliability than previous services.