Ferry capacity holding back tourism?

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A study looking into ferry capacity on Western Isles sailings has highlighted “critical” issues during peak season on several island routes.

Carried out by the Outer Hebrides Tourism Industry Association (OHITA) on behalf of HITRANS the study monitored CalMac’s online reservations system.

The availability of car spaces over the summer was recorded for the third year running- and revealed the situation appears to be getting worse.

The Stornoway/Ullapool route was busiest in July. Of 68 sailings 57 were fully booked and throughout the whole month there were only eight days when the ferry was not at full capacity.

In August, 50 of the 67 sailing were fully booked, while in total, between June and October this year more than half of all sailing were at full capacity. This was a 40% rise in the number of fully booked ferries in summer 2013 compared to that of 2012.

Meanwhile on the Oban/ Lochboisdale route every ferry sailing in July was fully booked, with 78% of sailings at full capacity in August.

Between June to August there was a 37% increase in the number of capacity sailings compared to 2012, however September and October remained on par with the previous summer.

Chairman of the OHTIA, Ian Fordham, explained: “This is the biggest single issue facing the tourism industry at the moment in terms of growth. No matter what you do if tourists can’t get here they can’t get here.”

He continued: “It’s been three years we’ve been looking at it and it’s getting worse.”

However the Association are positive steps can be taken to help ease the situation.

Mr Fordham continued: “In terms of finding a solution in the short term it involves looking at the timetables and seeing what can be done to improve the situation. In the longer term we need to justify more investment for more ferries to the islands.”

Proposals put forward by the Association include exploiting the arrival of the new ferry, MV Loch Seaforth, this summer and the handover period when the MV Isle of Lewis will remain on standby.

Currently there is no deadline for the removal for the Isle of Lewis.

A Transport Scotland spokeswoman explained the vessel will remain “for the foreseeable future and until users are satisfied with the reliability and resilience of the new vessel and her operation”.

Mr Fordham continued: “We know there is a huge capacity issue. This is a really good opportunity to use both the new and old ferry to prove there is extra demand.”

The group also propose looking again at when additional summer sailings are scheduled, so they coincide with peak days, and also the possibility of adding extra sailings.

On the Oban, Castlebay and Lochboisdale route, the group suggest a review of the Oban services, to provide the opportunity for weekend visits to Barra, and extending the Mallaig trail to cover the summer months.

While they also suggest additional summer sailing on the Tarbert/Uig route be extended by three weeks to run the length of peak season.

Mr Fordham stressed that the effectiveness of each ferry route in the Western Isles has a knock on effect on others in terms of tourist visitor numbers, with most island-hopping while visiting the Western Isles. “From a tourism perspective we want people to travel through the islands, from the bottom to the top,” he said.

A CalMac spokesperson commented: “We have been in discussion with the Outer Hebrides Tourism Industry Association for the last few years to better understand their concerns and also explain the operational challenges we face.

“We share a desire to encourage more visitors to come to the islands and are continuing to work together to find ways of achieving that.”

Timetables for the new ferry, MV Loch Seaforth, have not yet been drawn up - but will be consulted on.

Meanwhile the Comhairle Transportation Committee, which met last week, have supported the creation of a top level ‘Ferry Task Force’ which was suggested the Tourism Industry Association.

Mr Fordham described this as a “really positive move.”