Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cost of trips to Scottish islands cut in half

Scotland is a land of many islands. Roughly 790, give or take a few. According to the 2011 census, of those 790 islands, there is a permanent resident population on 94 of them.

The names evoke stunning landscapes, remote wildernesses, pristine beaches. Croft houses, pastel harbor towns, and Fair Isle knitting. Island castles, whisky distilleries, and Neolithic monuments. Isle of Skye. Jura. Hebrides (inner and outer). Arran. Islay. Orkneys. Iona. Shetlands.

And now, the cost of travel to many of the islands will be cut in half. Half!

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry boat arrives in Armadale, Isle of Skye
CalMac ferry boat arrives in Armadale on the Isle of Skye.
On Thursday, the Scottish government announced the ferry fares to 14 popular island destinations will be cut by approximately 50%. Prices will drop by roughly 44% for single passenger fares. Fares for cars will drop by an average of 55%. The price drops will begin in October 2015.

Included among the islands receiving these price cuts are Iona, Skye, Mull, Bute, Muck, and Cumbrae, as well as Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Last October, the government reduced the fares to the Isle of Arran. Prices for passengers dropped from £11.30 to £7.30, while prices for cars dropped from £70 to £29.70 (in current US dollars, that's from $104.12 to $44.18). Similar price cuts were introduced for Gigha, Islay, and Colonsay in 2012, and for Coll, Tiree, and locations in the Outer Hebrides in 2008.

These price cuts are instituted by the Scottish government through a calculation called the "road equivalent tariff." The RET calculation seeks to align ferry prices with what the cost would be if a person were able to drive a car to these various locations, instead of taking a ferry. In other words, how much it would cost a driver in gasoline to drive to a location if that location was not an island, or if the island were linked to the mainland via a really, really, really long bridge.

Ferry boat in the Firth of Clyde
Ferry chugs through the Firth of Clyde.
The RET is used for passenger fares, car fares, bus fares, and small commercial vehicles. Large commercial vehicles already pay a different rate. The RET formula will be recalculated annually, with new fares applied at the beginning of the summer timetables.

The RET works as both a price control and a direct government subsidy for island travelers. Ferry companies like Caledonian MacBrayne are paid money by the Scottish government in exchange for setting their rates at this RET level. With these RET fares, island residents receive significant help in their commuting costs to and from the mainland. Tourists benefit from substantially cheaper travel. And the tourism industry gets a boost from, presumably, increased numbers of tourists attracted by the cheaper costs.

Not everyone is pleased by the new RET routes. While these new subsidized routes cover many of the islands to the west of Scotland, the islands to the north — such as the Orkneys and Shetlands — have not yet received similar subsidies. Those from the Northern Isles point to the basic unfairness of this proposition, with millions of pounds subsidizing the Western Isles and no equivalent to the north.

According to the Scottish government, the RET won't work yet for Orkneys and Shetlands: "For the Northern Isles, due to the longer distances involved, rolling out RET now or in the next few years would mean an increase on a range of fares currently available." However, the government says "the intention is to phase in the introduction of RET to the Northern Isles over a much longer timeframe."

Ferry between Mull and Iona
It takes only a few minutes to ferry between Mull and Iona.
Similar to its subsidy for ferry rides, the Scottish government has since the 1970s paid a subsidy for plane flights from Glasgow to the Isle of Tiree, as well as to Barra in the Outer Hebrides. The government will award a new contract for these routes in July, providing two aircraft to the contractor for the routes. The contractor will be required to increase the number of flights for both locations to twice a day from Monday through Saturday, and for one Sunday flight to operate all year round.

While the overall island population in Scotland fell 3% during the 1990s, in the first decade of the 21st century the population figures have rebounded and increased 4% by 2011 to roughly 103,700 people. The Scottish government wants to continue the population growth.

These new ferry and plane subsidies are a means of making life easier for islanders, and travel cheaper for tourists. How about we all help with this scheme and make some island trips soon?

Wake of a ferry boat
Bon voyage.

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