The importance of tourism to the Western Isles and its ability to drive prosperity in the region was underlined recently with the news that tourism supports 1,100 jobs - around 10 per cent of local employment.
New figures reveal that tourism has shot up by 22 per cent in just one year, and it seems that the Islands are finally coming into their own as a destination, not only for visitors from the rest of the UK, but also from the States, Canada, Australia and a myriad of European countries.
Ancestral links and well-established sites such as the Callanish Stones, the Dun Carloway Broch and Kisimul Castle have played their part in drawing visitors to our shores for many years.
However, the emergence of the Hebridean Way and the Harris Distillery, the installation of the Lewis Chessmen in their fine new home at Lews Castle Museum, bolstered by the work to make the Islands a ‘must see’ for cruise ship visitors, has meant a dramatic impact on tourism.
Seeing the changes first-hand is accommodation provider Linda Johnson, who has had 25 years experience welcoming visitors - corporate and pleasure alike - to the 4-star Hebridean Guest House in the heart of Stornoway.
Linda entered the business because she had a young family and wanted to be on hand during school holidays. She says: “It didn’t take me long to realize I was in a career I really enjoyed. The visitors are always interesting and they can talk to me about places on the islands that even I don’t know about.
“You are always learning in this job but it is incredibly rewarding and I am proud to have built up a thriving concern of my own.”
Linda’s work at the guest house has been a labour of love with a substantial investment in the property to create a modern, comfortable 11-bedroom establishment.
Linda says: “Visitors appreciate the guesthouse because it is like a hotel, but a lot more personal.”
Linda’s tenure at the Hebridean Guest House might soon be ending as it is for sale with Edinburgh’s Bruce & Co, but she would be leaving having witnessed a strong upward trend in the Islands’ appeal over the years.
She explained: “The Outer Hebrides Tourism Association is doing well advertising and promoting specialist attractions like the Hebridean Way and Peter May trails. The area is a lot more interesting now - it is not just about the Standing Stones.
“One of the biggest changes has been the phenomenal improvement in the dining experience. The restaurants are in a different league now.”
Business visitors are an important part of Linda’s trade and the general health of the economy is reflected in the potential for repeat bookings.
Linda said: “This isn’t just a summer season business. We have visitors all year round with a steady flow of people working with local enterprises and the public sector.
“I have met an incredibly wide variety of people from all over the world,” continues Linda, “and the feedback is great. People love the scenery and sights throughout the year. Just last November, in the middle of winter, we even had a team of photographers from Denmark who were amazed by what they saw.”
The opening up of the region thanks to ferry sailings to and from the Western Islands every day and more affordable fares due to the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) has certainly proved beneficial for tourism.
RET is now applicable to inter-island ferries encouraging more travel between the Islands and the efforts to maintain good travel links and improve services for Islanders and visitors is ongoing.
This week Martin Dorchester, Chief Executive David MacBrayne Limited is giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament about how the company intends to increase passenger, vehicle and commercial traffic on its ferry routes.
Also being discussed is the introduction of smart ticketing and the possibility of these tickets being used for onward travel by other modes.
Work on the visitor’s experience once they arrive in the Islands is also very important, as Alan MacKenzie, Islands Manager for VisitScotland, highlighted: “2016 proved to be a great year for tourism in the Outer Hebrides, with visitor numbers remaining strong up to the end of October.
“Earlier in the season, we launched the VIP (VisitScotland Information Partner) programme, which allows the national tourism organisation to work in partnership with businesses to recognise the work they are already doing in enhancing the visitor experience and bringing the Spirit of Scotland to life, including the provision of visitor information.
“I am delighted to say that in the Outer Hebrides 50 businesses have already signed up including hotels, visitor attractions, B&Bs and hostels, everywhere from Lewis to Harris, Stornoway to South Uist and Lochboisdale to Lochmaddy.
“With RET now applicable to inter-island ferries and the Hebridean Way being promoted, we are optimistic that tourism will continue to grow over the coming years.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank businesses and residents alike for their hard work welcoming people from near and far to the Outer Hebrides, as we look forward to an equally successful 2017.”