A DRIVE to foster local entrepreneurship has been placed at the heart of a bid to boost the tourism industry in the Outer Hebrides.

A target has been set to increase the number of tourists the islands attract from the current 218,000 by around 20 per cent by 2020, increasing the revenue the sector generates to £74 million from £53m in the process.

Central to those ambitions are efforts to encourage a higher level of spend per visitor, persuade visitors to take in largely undiscovered areas, and to visit the islands for longer. Currently the average stay on the islands is six days.

And underpinning those objectives is a move to encourage residents on Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist, Barra and Benbecula to create their own small businesses. Examples include the formation of companies specialising in cycling or walking tours or wildlife cruises which take people beyond the most frequently visited spots.

Robert McKinnon, vice chair for local industry body Outer Hebrides Tourism (OHT), said the strategy is based around “creating ways of monetising the scenery” in an area stretching from the Butt of Lewis in the north down to Barra in the south. The body also promotes the island of St Kilda, a world heritage site.

“One of things we are going to invest in is to create a Hebridean Way, which is a long-distance cycle path,” Mr McKinnon said. “You can put the physical structure in, but then you need places for people to stay, which are not necessarily luxury hotels. It could be a bunkhouse or a place to get food.

“We can scope the opportunities and put the infrastructure in place. That then creates a more positive environment for people; it gives them the confidence to establish individual businesses.”

Mr McKinnon, who runs an accommodation business on Harris, said people on the islands have a predilection for entrepreneurship, which can benefit the local tourism industry. “In the islands, there is a history of people playing a role,” he said. “Most of our members are self-employed, providing a service of their own. There is very little in terms of a corporate structure. It is very much an entrepreneurial entity.”

Alongside the attempt to foster entrepreneurship is an aim to promote less visited parts of the islands. Harris, where Mr McKinnon is based, attracts visitors on account of the Harris tweed industry and its beaches. But there are other areas OHT is keen for tourists to explore.

“A big part of our thing is trails; there’s a bird of prey trail which has proved quite popular with people,” Mr McKinnon said. “If you have read any of the Peter May novels, there’s a Peter May Trail that follows the novels down the island. We are trying to get people out into the less visited bits – St Kilda, Callanish and Luskentyre are world famous, they are great assets to have, but we need to spread the love.”

One barrier to the islands’ bid to fulfil their tourism potential is its transport infrastructure. There are four ferry services which connect the islands but the issue of transport is currently a bone of contention, with overruns on operator CalMac’s winter servicing programme causing disruption to services.

Two new ferries have been commissioned by Cal-Mac from the Ferguson Marine on the Clyde to work on the islands. “We’re always talking to ministers to make the case for better transport connections,” Mr McKinnon said. “Obviously, the more we can even out the season the better. The boats are in demand for half the year, then in the winter the demand is reduced. It’s quite a big thing.”

Two ferries currently operate within the chain of islands at present, however Western Isles Council is looking at establishing fixed links to connect the south of Harris and Uist, and between Uist and Barra, via causeways and bridges. Mr McKinnon said this would be a “game-changer” for the islands. “It opens up areas that are less accessible at the moment, and people can do more within their week,” he said.

The Islands (Scotland) Bill, currently going through the Scottish Parliament, could help fund such projects, in a similar way to the City Region Deals.