Concern as ‘booming’ Isle of Harris loses tourist office

Visitor numbers to Harris are booming but its tourist information centre has now closed. PIC: Ian Rutherford/TSPL.
Visitor numbers to Harris are booming but its tourist information centre has now closed. PIC: Ian Rutherford/TSPL.
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A MSP has raised concerns that the ‘booming’ Isle of Harris has lost its tourist information centre.

VisitScotland has decided not to re-open its iCentre in Tarbert at the start of the next tourist season.

The organisation said falling visitor numbers since 2010 had driven the decision with tourists now more likely to seek out their own information online.

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However, Dr Alasdair Allan, MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said Harris businesses were concerned about the loss and that the island needed a face-to-face tourist information service.

He said: “A number of Harris-based businesses have gotten in touch with me to express their concern about the prospect of the tourist information office closing down, and I have raised their concerns with VisitScotland.

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“Harris is booming at the moment, but there remain structural problems. The island’s only cash machine with 24/7 access is prone to breaking down, many areas of the island have poor connectivity and foreign visitors can find the roads difficult to acclimatise to.

“Whatever happens, there needs to be some kind of face-to-face tourist information service available in Harris in time for next season.”

Visitors numbers at the Tarbert centre are down 20 per cent since 2010, Visit Scotland said.

The closure of the Tarbert centre follows the loss of similar services at Castlebay on Barra and Lochmaddy on North Uist, both which closed in 2017.

The centre at Lochboisdale on South Uist shut in 2016.

Meanwhile, visitors to the Outer Hebrides are at an all-time high with more than 218,000 visits made to the Western Isles in 2017. Of these, almost 149,000 (68 per cent) were leisure trips.

The vast majority of visitors had a good experience on the islands, although mobile connectivity and the availability of tourist information were highlighted as areas for improvement.

VisitScotland said it was working with Outer Hebrides Tourism and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to provide some level of information to visitors from the Tarbert centre next season.

The organisation is also encouraging those working in the tourism industry to become unpaid VisitScotland Information Partners to share their expertise and local knowledge.

Plans are also in place to move or upgrade the iCentre at Stornoway and to provide some service from the redundant unit at Castlebay.

Chris Taylor, Regional Leadership Director at VisitScotland, said: “With a significant drop in footfall to VisitScotland information centres across Scotland over the past decade a radical approach was needed in line with changing visitor habits, to ensure customer demands are met.

“This planned change follows on from a review of visitor information across the Outer Hebrides, carried out in close consultation with Outer Hebrides Tourism and other stakeholders. This will ensure that we continue to respond to the changing way visitors look for information, whilst recognising the unique nature and geography of the islands.

“By working together, VisitScotland and Outer Hebrides Tourism will ensure that visitors to the Outer Hebrides have access to the information they want, when they need it and in a range of formats.

“This will ensure that visitors continue to enjoy one of Scotland’s most stunning and inspirational destinations and have the very best experience during their trip.”

Tourism in the Outer Hebrides is now worth nearly £65 million a year - up 20 per cent from 2013.

For leisure visitors, the average spend during their stay was £344.