Protests have erupted following the latest major disruption to ferries across the Hebrides – with the Hebrides ferry off the Tarbert-Lochmaddy-Uig route and knock-on service disruption from Stornoway to Oban.
Yesterday afternoon (Wednesday September 5th) CalMac announced that: “Repair work to MV Hebrides has been successful” after almost three days of being marooned in Uig.
And cancelled services were suddenly rescheduled. “The previously-cancelled 1410 Uig-Tarbert will be delayed until approx 1600 and the previously-cancelled 1620 Tarbert-Uig will be delayed until approx 1815.” Knock-on disruption continues today on services between Mallaig, Armadale and Lochboisdale.
Outer Hebrides Tourism (OHT) said last night (Wednesday) that it “sees no end to the critical issues caused by the continued unreliability of ferries to these islands as we end the season as it began - with disruption.
“In the early days of this summer season, OHT costed the operational issues that caused ferry disruption then to be £6m for the Outer Hebrides, equal to about 1% of its GDP for 2018.
“Four months on, at the end of that summer season, a third instance of cancelled and rescheduled ferries again causes tourists to cancel their holidays, leaving accommodation and activities providers with late cancellations.
“The economic cost is therefore spiralling upwards causing critical concerns about the future of tourism businesses in the Outer Hebrides.
Ian Fordham, chair of OHT demand that the Scottish Government “recompense our local businesses and invest in rebuilding confidence in the Outer Hebrides as a tourist destination after the negative economic impact of this summer's ferry fiasco.”
OHT continue to call on each of the Scottish Ministers who now have responsibility for ferries and for the islands to engage with us properly to address:
Calmac’s ageing fleet and its inability to move beyond the knife-edge on which it sits for service reliability
General pressure on most Outer Hebrides ferry routes
Construction delays to two new ferries with nothing else planned
How they will manage this against the backdrop of traffic and visitor growth to the Outer Hebrides.
There are more than 218,000 visitors to these islands per year, almost 90% of these are from the UK and 85% of them travel by ferry.
Even without ferry cancellations, there has been limited peak availability on several routes throughout this summer.
Ian continued: " There has been a distinct lack of any visible action this summer from Transport Scotland and successive Scottish Government Ministers - as ministerial responsibility for ferries has changed three times in the past six months alone - to address this despite the local economic impact."
And OHT insisted that “four new vessels (in addition to the ones under construction) or three plus a fixed link in the Sound of Harris, are required to provide a satisfactory service and room for our tourism sector to sustain and flourish.”
And the Western Isles Labour Party has demanded an urgent statement from Transport minister Michael Matheson on the “current shambles of island ferry services”
Alison MacCorquodale, the party’s prospective Parliamentary candidate, called on Mr Matheson to explain what plans – if any – the Scottish Government has to relieve the present situation.
She said: “This week again, the islands are suffering massive disruption and loss of business due to CalMac break-downs and diversions. It should be clear even in Edinburgh that the existing fleet is not up to the challenges it faces.
“With the recent news of further delays to the delivery of a new vessel for the Tarbert-Uig-Lochmaddy routes, it must be accepted that immediate measures are required.
“At least one vessel must be leased in order to provide back-up and to ease the pressure.
“In current circumstances, it is beyond belief that CalMac were forced to hand £6 million back to the Scottish Government because they performed to such high standards.
“Mr Matheson should come to Tarbert, Lochboisdale, Lochmaddy and Stornoway to explain this in person to the stranded drivers, locals and visitors who have been forced into long detours and to the businesses which have no certainty about when or whether ferries will sail.
“Much of this stems from the failure of the Scottish Government to plan for anticipated demand, to pursue a reliable procurement policy and to react with any sense of urgency as the problems developed.”