The Lewis and Harris cruise season cannot now start and could be postponed indefinitely due to the international situation with the Covid-19 virus.
The port of Stornoway is in lockdown, with a current notice to mariners from Stornoway Port Authority advising that no shore leave is allowed for crew of commercial vessels. Vessels can take on fuel and water, but even stores will have to be organised electronically and delivered to the bottom of the ship’s gangway.
And Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) who run the port at Tarbert, have informed mariners all their ports are closed to non-essential visiting vessels, specifically mentioning cruise ships, yachts and tour boats.
At the same time major cruise lines have suspended their voyages until at least mid-May in response to international movement restrictions. Of the cruise ships due to call in April and May almost all have publicised a suspension of their whole programme of voyages for the time being.
Cruise and Maritime Voyages operates the Astoria, scheduled for three visits to Stornoway during April and May, and the Marco Polo. They’ve currently returned all their vessels to their home ports except two which are completing epic repatriation voyages – one to London and one to Perth, Australia. Cruise departures are suspended until at least April 24th.
Cruise departures up to 5th May are suspended aboard regular Stornoway visitor the Hebridean Princess, due for three visits during April and May, and cruise company Ponant, who operate Le Champlain, have suspended all cruise departures until May 15th. Le Champlain was due in Stornoway twice in May and Ponant also operates the cruise ships Le Boreal and Le Bellot which are due later in the season.
While cancellation of tourism traffic is essential and has been widely welcomed by islanders, the loss of the valuable summer business will hit island businesses hard.
Also of concern is the wider damage to the cruise industry as a whole from Covid-19, with cruise vessels implicated as hothouses for incubation of the virus after several internationally-publicised outbreaks aboard vessels.
The summer shutdown will also have a huge impact on leisure yacht business throughout the islands. On Friday (3 April) Comhairle nan Eilean Siar announced that all Comhairle ports, harbours and facilities are closed to all non-essential vessels, specifically including recreational vessels. The Comhairle has jurisdiction over harbours, piers and slipways including at Carloway, Breasclete, Leverburgh and Berneray.
HM Coastguard has specifically reiterated that the use of yachts for leisure purposes is not permitted during the current crisis. They issued a renewed warning yesterday (Monday 6 April) after a yacht grounded on a sandbank off the east coast of England.
HM Coastguard said: "Every 999 call could put frontline responders at risk of Covid- 19 and places avoidable pressure on our vital NHS services. The government has been clear that people have to stay at home to save lives."
The picture shows the brand new cruise ship Fridtjof Nansen in Stornoway in February – the only cruise ship to have called into Stornoway so far this year (Stornoway Shipping Services).