IN a continued campaign against the Comhairle’s decision to axe inter-island flights to Barra and reduce air connections between Stornoway and Benbecula, Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil has questioned whether the local authority believe the islands “can afford to lose tourists?”
Mr MacNeil’s concern has risen following a post on the Lonely Planet travel guide website from a person wishing to holiday in the Western Isles and unsure how to travel from Barra to Lewis within a tight time-frame.
Established in the 1970s, the Lonely Plant has become the world’s most successful travel publishers, printing over 100million books in nine different languages. On the its website the Outer Hebrides are rated No 1 for Top Destinations in Scotland and No 10 for worldwide Top Destinations.
The worrying post reads: “I want to get to both Barra and Lewis. It looks as if the only way to do this is to go back to the mainland of Scotland in between, or else take a very long island hopping time about it. Have I missed something more expeditious?”
Mr MacNeil commented: “This is quite simply a shameful situation and damaging to our tourist industry. Lonely Planet is a travel encyclopaedia, if that starts to indicate difficulties or travel hassles people will start to take heed and avoid our islands.
“Again people outside the Hebrides will be wondering why the Comhairle have shot us all in the foot and made travel within the Hebrides more difficult. “The tourist industry is important and now faces a backwards step because of the Comhairle’s short-sighted decision to axe inter island flights. Are the Comhairle now saying that we can afford to lose tourists?”
The Outer Hebrides Area Tourism Partnership Visitor Plan 2010-2015, cites the Tourism Value to the Outer Hebrides as £49.9million, taken from the Outer Hebrides Snedden Report 2007, produced on behalf of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, tourism body VisitScotland and the Comhaire.
Statistics from a VisitScotland 2011 visitors survey shows that nearly 14per cent (13.9%) of visitors to the islands arrived in Barra.
And from that figure less than four per cent (3.7%) of visitors left from Barra, the others travelling up through the Western Isles prior to departure (4.3% left from Lewis, 2.1% from Harris and 3% from the Uists).
Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd recorded a total of 11,462 passengers going through Barra Airport in 2012 – an increase of nine per cent from the previous year.
And recently a short film of Barra’s world famous beach landing – an experience many tourists will no longer be able to undertake from within the Western Isles from April – was watched by around 60million through Globo TV, one of the most watched news bulletins in Brazil, a country seen as a target market by VisitBritain.
In response to Mr MacNeil’s criticism, Comhairle Leader Angus Campbell said: “A recent study showed that roughly a third of passengers on the Barra/Benbecula route were sightseers. However these make up a minority of tourists to the Islands.
“Passenger numbers on the Sound of Barra ferry around more than 20 times those on the air service with the majority of flights flying at less than 25% full.
“The Comhairle is confident that Barra and Uists will continue to attract tourists for the many attractions of the area and that tourism will not be adversely affected by discontinuing the service,” he continued.
“The choice facing the Comhairle was: should we continue to put £83 of Council Tax payers money per one way trip per seat (and many take return trips so that’s £166) into giving tourists an additional experience or should we invest that money in our third sector, our old folk or eduction for our young? “The people of the Islands gave use their answer through the consultation.”
And highlighting the commercial problems which faced the inter-island air scheme, Alan Mackenzie, VisitScotland’s Island Manager, commented: “The Barra-Benbecula flight will continue until the end of March. The number of people using this flight did not make it commercially viable, as most travel through the islands using ferries.”
He added: “Nevertheless, some visitors took this short and spectacular journey as part of their Hebridean experience and will be sad to discover it’s no longer available.”