THE number of visitors to the Outer Hebrides has risen by more than a quarter over the past six years, a study reveals.
More than 218,000 people visited the Western Isles between October 2012 and September 2013, the Islands Visitor Survey found. The total represents an increase of 27 per cent over the past six years.
In total, 425,000 people visited the islands of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, providing a £100 million boost to local economies.
The study also found that threequarters of those exploring the islands intended to return within the next five years for a break.
It found around 80 per cent of visitors stated they were “very satisfied” with their visit.
Around 40 per cent of visitors now share their trip experiences online, with almost a third uploading photos of their visit to social media sites.
Orkney had 142,816 visitors, compared to 141,974 in a 2008-09 survey, spending over £31m. And Shetland saw 64,655 people travel to the islands, compared to 60,000 who visited in 2006, with a total spend of £16m.
Tourism minister Fergus Ewing said: “The fantastic results from the survey are a credit to people working in the hotels and tourism sector on the islands, who give our guests a warm welcome and enjoyable holiday.
“With beautiful scenery, rich history and diverse culture, it’s no surprise that Scotland’s islands are attracting more visitors and encouraging them to spend more and stay longer.
“In this Year of Homecoming as we prepare to host both the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, I am confident that 2014 will be a remarkable year for tourism.”
Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, said the figures showed that the tourism industry in the islands was resilient in a challenging economic climate.
He said: “With their breath-taking landscapes, rich archaeological history and exciting visitor attractions Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides are incredible places to visit time and time again.”
Other findings of the survey showed the average length of time visitors spent in Shetland had risen to ten nights, and the most popular reason for going was holiday/leisure purposes.
In the Outer Hebrides, 48 per cent of leisure visitors interviewed were returning to the islands having previously enjoyed holidays there.
The islands are famous for the scenery, wildlife and prehistoric sights such as the world-famous Callanish Stones on Lewis.
Alasdair Macleod, chairman of Western Isles Council’s sustainable development committee, said: “It is very reassuring to see that satisfaction levels are so high and that the vast majority of visitors would recommend the Outer Hebrides as a holiday destination.”
James Stockan, chairman of Orkney Islands Council’s development and infrastructure committee, said the survey proved tourism would long be “at the heart” of Orkney’s economy.
He added: “The satisfaction levels expressed by tourists are particularly pleasing and are testament to the hard work and dedication to customer services of our industry providers.”
Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell was “extremely pleased” at the high level of satisfaction given, recorded at over 90 per cent.
He said: “More people are heading to the isles to enjoy the outstanding natural beauty.
“Tourism contributes significantly to the local economy, and I’m also heartened to see the increase in the number of business visitors which reflects current developments in the oil and gas sector.”