By Matthew Lynas
The Outer Hebridean isle was named the fifth best island destination in the world and the number one in Europe and the UK in the site’s second annual Traveller’s Choice Awards.
And Lewis and Harris wasn’t the only Scottish island to be recognised, with Mainland, Orkney, named the fourth best European island destination and the Isle of Mull securing ninth place.
41% of visitors to the Outer Hebrides shared their experience online.
Ian Fordham, chairman of the Outer Hebrides Tourism Industry Association (OHTIA), said this latest recognition underlines Lewis and Harris’ credentials as a top tourist destination.
“For us the accolade from TripAdvisor is fantastic,” said Fordham. “We know people come here on holiday but to get this independent accolade, it adds a kind of credibility.”
Fordham attributed the island’s success on TripAdvisor to its scenery and heritage.
“I think if you look at visitor feedback people like nature, wildlife, beaches and archaeology but the thing that goes beyond that is that we’re an island chain,” he said.
“This is a journey; there’s diversity of landscape and diversity of culture. It’s one of the great journeys of the world.”
The OHTIA represents 270 tourist businesses in the Outer Hebrides working in partnership to promote tourism on the islands, a partnership which Fordham thinks is key to the region’s success.
“I think because it’s an island community people have to work together,” he said.
“There’s a lot of recognition that you can’t promote one small area, you have to promote the islands as a whole.”
Angus Macleod, owner of the Hotel Hebrides in Tarbet on the Isle of Harris and a member of the OHTIA, underlined the importance of tourism businesses working together to enhance the visitor experience.
“We as a tourist community knew that Lewis and Harris is a world class destination and now we want to build a world class experience,” he told SLTN.
“We’re committed to investing.
“We have got a very vocal industry body that drives all the marketing for the Hebrides. There’s very much an ethos of working together as opposed to competition.”
As well as funding and maintaining the Visit Outer Hebrides website (www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk), the OHTIA is said to have a number of marina development projects in the planning stages and launched its own tourism growth plan in the same week as the TripAdvisor accolade.
64% of visitors researched the Outer Hebrides online prior to their visit.
The Tourism Outer Hebrides 2020 plan aims to grow tourism revenues in the Outer Hebrides by 20% – from £53 million a year to £63.6m – by the year 2020. Measures proposed to help achieve the target include increasing transport capacity and integration, extending the trading season, adding additional experiences for visitors and appealing to new markets.
The OHTIA’s plan also outlines investment in marine infrastructure, the Hebridean Way and the proposed Isle of Harris Distillers’ distillery in the village of Tarbet.
These kinds of attractions are part of the draw of Lewis and Harris, according to Macleod, who said “big growth” in domestic tourism on the island has been about more than the so-called ‘stay-cation’.
“There’s been a shift towards people looking for more than sun and sand,” he said.
“Visitors are becoming more discerning, looking for a holiday with heritage and education.”
Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, agreed with both Fordham and Macleod that the diversity of Scotland’s islands boosts their status as an attraction.
“With hundreds of islands, each with their own unique character, diverse landscape and rich wildlife, it’s no surprise that these islands have been recognised in the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards,” said Cantlay.
“It’s always great to get this kind of recognition and I’m sure it will help encourage even more people to visit these incredible islands in 2014, the year Scotland welcomes the world.”
The TripAdvisor accolades for the islands come after the Islands Visitor Survey found that Scotland’s northern islands are welcoming more visitors than ever before, and tourism contributes more than £100m to the islands’ economies.