Visitors to Scotland from cruise ships are predicted to reach almost 830,000 in 2018, a significant increase on last year’s 680,000 – and almost double that of 2016. Crew members are not included in this figure and can account for another third. The million mark looks set to be further exceeded when the £350m expansion of Aberdeen harbour to accommodate larger cruise ships is completed in two years’ time.
The number of ships calling at Scottish ports is predicted to increase from 761 last year to 815 in 2018, according to Cruise Scotland, the marketing body for 24 Scottish cruise ports. North America, Scandinavia and Europe are the predominant provenances, with Germany a growing market. Yet more business is expected to be generated for next year when Cruise Scotland members attend the industry’s premier event, Seatrade Cruise Global, in Florida in March.
Last year Invergordon became Scotland’s most popular port, welcoming over 150,000 visitors from 93 cruise ships. This year, 94 ships are expected to deliver 175,000 visitors. Edinburgh will see almost 170,000, up 35,000 from last year. Orkney is third busiest with a predicted 150,000 this year. Greenock for Glasgow, Loch Lomond and the Burns Country is fourth in the league at a predicted 127,000 tourists, up from 103,000 last year. Lerwick has advance bookings at their highest-ever level, and over 90 vessels already scheduled to arrive at the port this year – almost double that of last year.
Smaller ports at Holy Loch, Montrose, Scrabster, Ullapool and Stornoway are also to experience unprecedented visitor numbers.
“2018 is set to be a record year for cruise tourism in Scotland, which is seen as a safe haven in a turbulent world,” said Andrew Hemphill, chair of Cruise Scotland, which is increasing its port portfolio by the year.
“With ever more passengers and ships, Scotland is becoming a destination for a growing number of multi-lingual, multi-cultural visitors, many of whom are getting a first-time experience of Scotland.”
But thousands of this new wave of visitors arriving at once, many with no fixed plans for their free time, can pose logistical problems - not least for restaurants.
In Glasgow, Jacqueline O’Donnell, chef-patron of the Sisters restaurant near Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, has seen a significant rise in cruise visitors from Greenock, who often book at short notice. She told The Times: “The number of lunchtime diners we’re getting from cruise ships now is easily three times that of just two years ago. They are more independently minded than the passengers who just hop straight onto a tour bus. They want to do their own thing, visit the city landmarks and taste local Scottish produce. They book lunch directly with us and take a taxi back to the boat.
“It’s getting to the stage that we’re having to actively look and see when the boats are docking at Greenock so we can be prepared for the influx.”
Concerns that the existing infrastructure is insufficient to support visitors in such concentrated numbers are being addressed - albeit retrospectively.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s second busiest cruise destination, receives thousands of visitors from ships berthing at Rosyth, South Queensferry, Leith and Newhaven.
Ron Kitchin, chair of Leith Chamber of Commerce, said: “We can receive three boats a week, the equivalent of 15,000 people, many of whom arrive with no plans for the day. Organising 5000 people at a time can be difficult, especially if they have wheelchairs and young children and don’t speak English. Ports in dock areas can be horrible places. These environments have to be improved so people feel safe and welcome. Scotland is gaining in popularity as some people prefer to avoid parts of the Mediterranean. It still has a lot to learn, but we’re getting there.
“It’s about joining up the dots to give the best first impression possible.”
Leith Chamber of Commerce decided to help improve things by working with the new Cruise Forth information-sharing website which is expanding to Dundee, St Andrews and Eyemouth as visitors increasingly seek out new destination experiences. “It can be accessed on board for passengers – and, importantly, crews - to find a map and history of the local area, lesser known attractions, pre-book a table at a local restaurant, and so on,” said Kitchin, father of Tom, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred The Kitchin restaurant in Leith. With Forth Ports he has helped build a team of volunteers who greet visitors, organise taxis and mini-buses, provide interpreters, and help them find their way to the nearest ATM and wifi hotspot.
Chef Kitchin added: “Everyone has to do their bit, and that includes the ship’s concierge who can always negotiate with us for a table on behalf of his passengers.”
Stewart Nicol, CEO of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, told The Times: “Cruise tourism has upped the ante for us and we are active in meeting the challenges of thousands of people arriving into the city at one time. More passengers are choosing to visit the city centre alongside Loch Ness, Culloden, the Tomatin distillery and North Coast 500.” New coach drop-off points are part of the Inverness City Centre development plan, and Inverness Castle and the Victorian Market in the city centre are being developed as tourist attractions.
“It’s heartening to see more visitor choose not to eat on-board but to sample local cuisine, and that is something we are also looking at,” he added.
Marc Crothall of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, which is working on the Scottish Government's food tourism strategy, Tourism Scotland 2020, and Ambition 2030, said: "With around one million cruise visitors (passengers and crew) set to visit Scotland this year and with typically 1/3 of those that disembark choosing to self -explore our island destination towns and cities destinations and enjoy the on-shore Scottish hospitality, this significantly growing audience presents a huge opportunity for the many pubs restaurants cafes to showcase and serve up creative Scottish fare.
"What’s of utmost importance however is that although they will re-join their cruise companions and colleagues on the ship, the food and drink experience these visitors receive is a quality one no matter what type of premises they choose to visit, represents value for money, and served with a smile - It’s these cruise ship food tales and memories that will prompt recommendation to fellow passengers step ashore and explore what’s on offer next time and for them to return to Scotland again."