AN UPMARKET holiday home and travel company has been chosen as the preferred bidder to operate the funicular railway and leisure facilities at Cairngorm.

Natural Retreats UK, which is based in Wilmslow, Cheshire, is now in pole position to take on around 90 staff working on the railway, a shop and the Ptarmigan restaurant.

Serco Leisure was the other company short-listed for the tender.

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Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which decided on the bidder, confirmed the Cairngorm services would continue to be publicly owned.

The agency hopes to conclude talks with Natural Retreats UK, headed by Yorkshire-born Matt Spence, in a matter of weeks.

HIE chief executive Alex Paterson said: "This is a significant step forward in our procurement process, but it is not the end.

"Over the coming weeks, HIE will hold further discussions with Natural Retreats on a number of points of detail, before deciding whether or not to proceed to awarding a contract."

Natural Retreats UK already operates the Inn at John O'Groats and a number of holiday eco-lodges as part of an HIE backed regeneration project. The company has further cottages near Fort William as well as sites in Yorkshire, Cornwall, Wales, Newquay, Ireland, the Canary Islands and the US.

Annual accounts for Natural Retreats UK for the 12 months to March 2013 showed a £592,117 loss on turnover of more than £2.6m.

The funicular railway opened in December 2001 but operator CairnGorm Mountain struggled until HIE took it over in 2008.