FERRY campaigners on the Isle of Arran have warned the popular destination will miss out on the reopening of the Scottish tourism industry because of severe capacity constraints on its lifeline ferry service.

Scotland’s crisis-hit tourism sector received a major boost last week when minister Fergus Ewing set a reopening date of July 15, leading to hopes the industry could yet salvage part of the summer season.

But there are fears Arran will lose out on tourism traffic because social distancing measures have led CalMac to drastically reduce the number of passengers it carries on services to the island. CalMac, the government-backed ferry operator, said it has “followed Government guidelines on essential ferry travel and physical distancing” at all stages of the Covid-19 response.

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The Arran Ferry Action Group, which has around 1,400 members, warned that the reduced capacity is “potentially catastrophic for the island economy”, putting hundreds of jobs in the firing line.

“Setting aside the economic aspects, normal life on the island is not sustainable with such a limited carrying capacity,” said spokesman Gavin Fulton.

While up to 4,000 people normally travel to and from the island each day at the height of the summer season in July and August, the current capacity has been reduced to about 400 under emergency arrangements introduced by CalMac in response to the pandemic.

Mr Fulton noted that, while many Scottish tourism businesses will be preparing to reopen on July 15, “Arran is to remain shut – and we are very dependent on tourism”.

Declaring that as many as 1,500 of the 2,000 jobs supported by tourism on Arran are at risk, he added: “There are normally 4,000 a day [travelling to and from Arran in summer]. It is just not sustainable. The problem is the vast majority of business is in July and August. After that, it is just a fraction.”

Mr Fulton believes Arran will suffer because CalMac has “over-interpreted” the guidelines on social distancing. He said the ferry operator has not taken into account outdoor seating areas on the ferries in calculating the current capacity figures.

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He also said CalMac has rejected calls for people to be allowed to remain in their cars during crossings, which would allow capacity to be increased.

Mr Fulton said: “Such a reduction in numbers can only be the result of an over-interpretation of the rules... and a “can’t do” attitude which has been too frequently demonstrated in the past .

“The cramped cabins of airliners are currently flying with greater numbers than this so what possible justification can there be for such limitations in the voluminous cabins and open deck space of a ship?”

Under an essential lifeline timetable brought in by CalMac in response the pandemic, the carrying capacity of the Caledonian Isles has been slashed from 1,000 to 75, if each passenger was travelling by themselves, on the basis of a two-metre social distancing policy.

The vessel would carry 100 if one-third of passengers travelled as a family group or as a pair while maintaining social distancing of two metres. A second ferry, the Catriona, is able to carry just 12 passengers, down from 150, under the two-metre social distancing rule if each passenger is travelling by themselves. That number would rise to 16 if one-third of the passengers travel as a family or a pair.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland, the national transport agency, said: “We are acutely aware that supporting island communities to move out of lockdown is a complex issue, not least for ferry operators and services. Capacity and logistical issues will be a particular challenge whilst maintaining physical distancing measures, and we are working with operators to understand the impact of this and likely demand for travel.

“We also appreciate that our islands are particularly dependent on many of the sectors worst hit by the impact of the public health measures we had to take to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and many island businesses are struggling.

“We will continue to engage with key stakeholders as we consider the options for ferry services through the different phases of the Scottish Government’s Route Map, and how best to support our remote communities come out of lockdown, but progress on all of this has to ensure we reach solutions which will be safe for everyone and, most importantly, prevent the spread of the virus and protect lives. At this time, ferry travel continues to be for those who live on our islands with an essential need to travel to or from the mainland, and for essential supplies or business.”

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: “We have great sympathy with the position of island businesses – particularly those which rely on tourism and we have been working with tourism representatives across our network to discuss how we can help them rebuild after Covid.

"At all stages of the Covid response, CalMac has followed Government guidelines on essential ferry travel and physical distancing. As it stands the physical distancing rules of two metres dictate that we can only carry around 17% of our usual passenger numbers with the car deck restricted to 91% on our large ferries and our turnaround times will also be longer due to physically distanced queues and cleaning regimes on board. We are exploring all options and discussing future timetable options with Transport Scotland. However, the decision on who can travel and physical distancing on board our ferries remains a matter of Government policy.”