Orkney is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the UK, having experienced exponential growth in the last five years. In 2016 113 ships are booked to call, carrying around 100,000 passengers and 30,000 crew, mostly between April and September.
As well as being ideally located for round-Britain cruises, Orkney sits at a maritime crossroads between Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. Intriguingly, this is most likely the exact same reason that Orkney had such huge cultural, ceremonial and trading importance during the Neolithic and ensuing periods when overland travel must have been extraordinarily difficult.
Hatston pier, situated just outside Kirkwall town, offers the largest deep water berth in Scotland at 385m length and 10.5m draft. This berth is frequently occupied and roughly 50% of visiting cruise ships anchor in the Bay and tender into Kirkwall pier. Orkney Islands Council, who operate a berthing policy restricting the total number of passengers arriving in one day, estimate that the business is worth more than £4m to the local economy.
The pressures on the islands are not inconsiderable however as visitor attractions such as the World Heritage sites and Kirkwall town are swamped by cruise ship passengers. The Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth this week disgorged 2068 passengers for the day, while the typical overall range is from Caribbean Princess (3599 passengers) to Hebridean Princess (50 passengers). Whenever more than one large ship is due to call, key roads in the town centre are closed to traffic for safety reasons and stewards are employed to direct the visitors.
When we first visited Orkney in 2012, cruise ships were a very new phenomenon and fleets of coaches were shipped over from Scotland to meet each arrival, causing chaos on the ferries. Five years on, resident coach businesses now appears to thrive on the basis of six months peak demand. A host of private tour guides operating small minibuses have also sprung up to meet the demand for personalised tours of Orkney Mainland during the passengers eight hours shore-leave.
Interestingly, Tish and I have just spent a few days in tour-guide mode ourselves, showing off the highlights to a friend who was visiting Orkney for the first time. With the luxury of three full days rather than just eight hours at our disposal we devised a busy programme taking in, inter alia, the World Heritage sites (see a recent post), other Neolithic sites, both of the Earl’s Palaces, St Magnus Cathedral, the Orkney Brewery, shops, restaurants, and not least the “GlastonBurray” music festival. Our friend has now returned home for a well-earned rest!