United plea for more capacity on ferries

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Arran must get increased capacity on to the ferries or the island economy could be ruined for years.

That is the stark warning this week as the island unites to put pressure on CalMac and the government to act on a crisis that could wipe out tourism on Arran this summer.

After initial joy among businesses on the island that tourism in Scotland could recommence on July 15, despair has returned as it emerged this week that the ferry situation has just got worse, with CalMac revealing that ferry capacity will be restricted to just eight per cent of the 2019 volumes due to the 2m social distancing restrictions.

The situation also has huge implications for those living on the island too, as the Arran Ferry Committee made it clear this week. Initial indications are for the Ardrossan to Brodick service to increase to five return sailings per day in July with a further increase to nine sailings a day in August, following the arrival of a second boat.  The Sunday services will also be reinstated.

However, the capacity will be significantly reduced to somewhere between 75 and 100 passenger per sailing meaning that booking will be required for all passengers, including foot passengers, for all journeys.

Currently it does not appear possible to operate the Lochranza to Claonaig service which will continue to operate to Tarbert on the current winter timetable for the foreseeable future.

The Arran Recovery Group said they had a ‘very positive’ virtual meeting with tourism minister Fergus Ewing who has agreed to convene a meeting in the coming days with transport minister Michael Matheson and Transport Scotland.

Chairman Tom Tracey said: ‘It is our strong belief, that with the right encouragement, Transport Scotland could direct CalMac to find a significant increased safe capacity.’

Mr Tracey along with group members Alastair Dobson and Linda Johnston, also have a very positive and supportive meeting with North Ayrshire Council leader Joe Cullinane and the council team.

The recovery group argue that Arran needs passenger ferry capacity at a minimum of 50 per cent of the 2019 passenger levels from July onwards. This assumes there will be no day visitors and only locals, VFF (?) and staying visitors. There also should be the same commercial traffic as 2o19. They also say there should be no motorhomes allowed to free up space for more cars.

And the latest recovery plan summary made it crystal clear: ‘To restate, current capacity plans mean there is no tourist industry on Arran and travel restrictions on the local community which will impose a probable infringement on Civil Liberties.

‘In this event, local and Scottish Government need to immediately establish an Island Survival Plan. The soft and hard structure that supports this £69m industry employing around 2,000 workers will not survive a six-month shutdown.’

However, hotels, B&Bs, self-catering lets and campsites are gearing up for reopening on July 15. Indeed the opening announcement last week drew the biggest booking day at Auchrannie in their 32-year history on top of a healthy order book.

Other hotels too, including The Douglas in Brodick, have solid bookings from July 15.

CalMac also has a significant number of bookings in place for July, but with current planned capacity it is doubtful these bookings can be honoured and there is a concern there may be no room for islanders to travel. This is being addressed by the ferry committee.

The Arran Ferry Action Group also stepped into the debate this week, see letters, page six.

Spokesman Gavin Fulton said: ‘Setting aside the economic aspects, normal life on the island is not sustainable with such a limited carrying capacity.

‘Such a reduction in numbers can only be the result of an over-interpretation of the rules and a “can’t do” attitude which has been too frequently demonstrated in the past.

‘The cramped cabins of airliners are currently flying with greater numbers than this so what possible justification can there be for such limitations in the voluminous cabins and open deck space of a ship?’

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said: ‘We are acutely aware that supporting island communities to move out of lockdown is a complex issue, not least for ferry operators and services. Capacity and logistical issues will be a particular challenge whilst maintaining physical distancing measures, and we are working with operators to understand the impact of this and likely demand for travel.

‘We also appreciate that our islands are particularly dependent on many of the sectors worst hit by the impact of the public health measures we had to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and many island businesses are struggling.

‘We will continue to engage with key stakeholders as we consider the options for ferry services through the different phases of the Scottish Government’s Route Map, and how best to support our remote communities come out of lockdown, but progress on all of this has to ensure we reach solutions which will be safe for everyone and, most importantly, prevent the spread of the virus and protect lives. At this time, ferry travel continues to be for those who live on our islands with an essential need to travel to or from the mainland, and for essential supplies or business.’

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: ‘We have great sympathy with the position of island businesses – particularly those which rely on tourism and we have been working with tourism representatives across our network to discuss how we can help them rebuild after COVID.’