An opinion piece by The Mole
The Orkney Mole blogged about cruise ships in 2016 (see here) and it seems the associated controversy has not gone away. A BBC television programme to be screened on Monday 31 July, Orkney: When the Boat Comes In (BBC One 19:30-20:00), documents the experience and debatable benefits of Orkney having become the cruise ship capital of the UK. Perhaps unwittingly, it has also catalysed the ever-present undercurrent of opinion in Orkney about the benefits and disbenefits of thousands of cruise ship passengers arriving on the island on virtually a daily basis in the summer.
On July 28th Orkney was blessed by the arrival of the 4,345-passenger cruise ship MSC Preziosa (which sounds like Hermione Granger enunciating a Harry Potter spell) on the Kirkwall deep water pontoon at Hatston.Four thousand passengers is approaching one-fifth of the entire Orkney population. Even a small proportion of these passengers will swamp the streets of Kirkwall and all the main visitor attractions such as Skara Brae.
Much is made by Orkney Islands Council (OIC) and others about the economic benefits of the cruise ships. It is true, there is income to be had from the ships; but who gets it? OIC Marine Services receives income from mooring fees and berthing services; the burgeoning tour coach infrastructure does well, ferrying 50-loads at a time and the growing number of accredited Orkney tour guides are kept gainfully employed; Historic Environment Scotland receive shed-loads of income at Skara Brae, but none at the Ring of Brodgar or Stones of Stenness which are free entry.
A very small number of exclusive private tours are also laid on for discerning passengers who wish to visit the places the big coaches cannot go, such as Maeshowe and the Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig. Some valuable financial contributions to those involved here but not mega-bucks.
A few shops in Kirkwall target the visitors and value the income they deliver, but Orkney is a somewhat remote Scottish island archipelago; it is not an intrinsically wealthy county and a majority of shops are aimed at the everyday needs of Orcadians. Besides which, most cruise ship passengers will visit a dozen of more different towns and there is a limit to the number of gifts and souvenirs that they wish to buy. Most cruise ship passengers walk up and down the short main street, perhaps buy a cup of coffee and content themselves with a free visit to St Magnus Cathedral.
Stagecoach, the regional bus operator, put out a message earlier: “Due to a high volume of cruise ship passengers in Orkney today, all our services are subject to delays.” You can imagine how that goes down with the folk of Orkney.
In addition to the Hatston pontoon, some ships anchor off in Kirkwall Bay, or dock in Stromness, adding to the numbers. In 2017 OIC Marine Services announced a limit of 4,500 cruise passengers per day, but this barely addresses the problem of over-crowding in Kirkwall town and swamping of key tourist attractions such as St Magnus Cathedral and Skara Brae.
In summer Orkney is already at capacity with much-valued independent tourists – people who arrive by road on the ferries from Scotland or by air, who hire a car and/or buy fuel for their own vehicle, who stay in a local accommodation, whether it be a hotel, B&B or camp site, and who pay for food, drink, meals and entertainment. They are likely to return to Orkney again in the future. These visitors will on average stay for at least a week and make a significant personal financial contribution directly into the Orkney economy. I could be wrong but my gut feeling is that this income stream is greater than that derived from the cruise ships.
Last year local undergraduate Rebecca Symonds completed her degree in International Hospitality & Tourism Management with a dissertation on cruise tourism in Orkney. She found that 59% of opinion among residents was favourable while 41% was either negative or mixed. Among non-cruise visitors however, only 49% were positive, 31% were negative and 20% gave mixed responses. Business attraction managers raised concerns about the increased footfall but felt they were coping well at the moment. Having taken part in her survey myself, I am not sure all respondents would have fully considered the breadth of aspects in the issue.
Given access to the data, which OIC surely have, a full cost-benefit appraisal should be a piece of cake. There is no indication however that OIC have in fact carried out such an analysis, or if they have they are keeping it under wraps.
I have no doubt this will rumble on like a restless sea.
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