SCOTLAND is an increasingly sought-after port of call for passengers on cruise ships.
Last year just under 400,000 people visited ports from Greenock to Lerwick, contributing £41m to the Scottish economy. Cruise operators expected interest in Scotland to grow but now fear that heavy-handed immigration procedures will deter ships from calling at UK ports.
Since July last year, immigration officials from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) have been required to carry out face-to-face checks with passengers before they can disembark. Previously the companies would send lists of all passengers and crew with dates of birth and passport details 72 hours in advance of arriving at a British port and, unless there was concern over particular individuals, passengers could go ashore without further immigration checks.
In fact the rules have not changed but, with no warning, a more stringent interpretation has left cruise operators with two unattractive options. They must bear the costs of flying immigration officers to the previous port and providing cabins for the journey to the UK so that they can check the identity of each passenger before arrival, or subject the passengers to a lengthy delay before they can disembark. With ships carrying more than 3000 passengers, the second would have a disastrous effect on future business.
This amounts to a classic case of overreaction, following problems at the UKBA which was castigated for a breach of security in 2011, when it emerged that border staff had suspended checks on some air passengers in order to cut queues in airport arrivals halls. The agency has considerable problems, largely because of a lack of comprehensive entry and exit data and a backlog of asylum cases that had been allowed to build up over several years. This makes it all the more frustrating that it should divert extra staff to make additional checks on low-risk cruise passengers. It is highly unlikely that anyone attempting to enter the UK illegally would do so via an expensive cruise because it included a visit to Portree or Invergordon.
Of course, there must be checks but they should be proportionate. Applying the letter of immigration laws without regard to individual circumstances results in injustice. There have been two such cases in Scotland in recent months. Daniel Whiteley, a graduate of St Andrews University, and Andrew Wilbur, who gained a PhD at Glasgow University, are both US citizens who wanted to settle in Scotland with their Scots wives but who have been prevented by new immigration rules. As a result, America will benefit from their Scots education in Scotland and their future earnings.
Scotland has been nominated as the top travel destination for 2013 by American news channel CNN and Cruise Scotland, representing the ports and operators reports strong interest. Increased costs, however, will make it unable to compete against Norway, Sweden and the Baltic ports.
Immigration must be properly regulated but this sledgehammer approach will achieve nothing and damage tourism, which is an increasingly vital part of an economy that needs all the help it can get.