With Scotland uniting in level 0 on July 19, the green light was given for cruise liner traffic from within the UK to dock at ports and harbours across the country.
There are undeniable economic benefits to liner visits and those aboard coming ashore to spend money.
However, after a year-and-a-half in which travel and crowds were among the biggest of no-nos, there may be mixed feelings among the communities hosting the ships.
Tomorrow, Orkney will play host to its first cruise liner since February last year when Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas arrives.
The visit is part of a seven-night round-trip from Southampton.
Although the ship is able to carry 4,180 passengers, operator Royal Caribbean are reporting there will be 1,111 when it docks in Orkney with all passengers over 18 having to provide proof of being double-vaccinated before they can board.
While Orkney Islands Council (OIC) is welcoming the liners back, the decision hasn’t really been up to them as they are not permitted to stop a vessel coming in unless under extreme circumstances.
A sign of things to come
Announcing the Anthem’s planned visit recently, OIC have said they are expecting further visits throughout August, September and October.
Recognising that there will be nervousness in the community, the council is saying safety precautions may mean liner traffic may actually be safer than other forms of travel and that the economic boost is needed.
Shetland has already welcomed back its first cruise liners.
However, operating at half its capacity, the MS Island Sky reportedly carried only 66 passengers to Lerwick on July 18 who went ashore in bubbles of 15.
However, Orkney has had a different experience under lockdown than Shetland as outbreaks of Covid-19 were seen in Shetland throughout the pandemic while Orkney had very low numbers.
The steady trickle of cases being seen in Orkney this summer has been its highest incidence throughout the entire pandemic.
How anxious are Orcadians about visiting liner passengers coming ashore?
Barbara Foulkes is a councillor for the Kirkwall West and Orphir areas. She also formerly led the local tourism industry as chief executive of the Orkney Tourist Board before working with VisitScotland.
She said: “I’ve had different expressions from different people. Some people are convinced the tourists will bring Covid-19 here.
“What we’re seeing at the moment is younger unvaccinated locals bringing it into the community.
“But we’ve had visitors here right through Covid, and if anyone thinks we haven’t they are either blind or they’ve totally stayed home.”
Councillor Foulkes said it was understandable that there would be a bit of nervousness among the public.
She added: “It’s like anything else; when you do something for the first time in a long time, everyone’s a bit wary.
“That’s what I’m sensing more than anything else – just a feeling that we don’t know how this is going to go.
“Orkney has behaved very well as a community during the pandemic, and Orcadians have heeded the advice that was given, but I also think we’re ready to move on.”
‘There’s very little known for sure’
Orkney businesses may seem like the most obvious pro-liner sect of the community.
However, the chairman of the Kirkwall Business Improvement District Duncan McLean says he feels the town’s businesses are finding it hard to fully welcome the planned liner visits as they still don’t know exactly how they will work.
He said: “There’s very little that’s known for sure yet.
“Our members are very keen to get clear definitive information of what’s happening. It’s only when you get those details that you can start planning opening hours, staffing and stocking.
“Like so many things over the last year-and-a-half, we only have provisional answers.
“There’s no doubt, for businesses along the street, the majority of them talk about the positive impact of the liners.
“One of the great myths of contemporary Orkney is that the liner passengers don’t spend any money – they spend a fortune. They put millions and millions of pounds into the economy.”
As they have welcomed the news of liners returning to the county, Orkney Islands Council has done what it can to soothe fears and remind the public of the economic benefit while not playing down public anxiousness.
Not long after the local authority made an official announcement about the Anthem’s visit, OIC’s head of marine services and transportation Jim Buck explained the process behind welcoming the liners back.
He said that OIC is ready to welcome the Anthem, but the decision as to when the first liner arrives doesn’t lie with the council.
He said: “As a port, unless it’s a serious health violation or there’s a problem with the vessel we’re not permitted to prevent or stop a vessel coming in.
“So, we have to welcome vessels in and out. If a cruise liner asks if they can come and visit, we have to let them in to visit and they’re free to come and go as they please.”
Asked if the council is happy to have the liners back, he said: “Yes, we are. Mainly from an economic point of view. Obviously, the harbours get some income from it but, usually, three to four times that is spent in the local economy supporting businesses that rely on the cruise income.
“That’s very important for Orkney and it’s something that’s been missing for over a year.”