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Isle be Back

11 February 2014

New survey shows rise in visitors to Scotland’s islands

With their picture-perfect beaches, stunning wildlife and intriguing history, it seems more people than ever before are falling in love with Scotland’s islands.

The Islands Visitor Survey 2012-2013, has found that over 425,000[1] people visited the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney between 2012 and 2013, with around three quarters saying they would be very likely or fairly likely to return in the next 5 years for a holiday or short break.

Not only are more people taking the time to explore Scotland’s islands, the Island Visitor Survey also revealed these visitors contribute over £100m to the local economies. 

The Survey was carried out across Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides in partnership with Shetland Islands Council, Orkney Islands Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and VisitScotland. The research was carried out by Scotinform Ltd and Reference Economics.

Conducted between October 2012 and September 2013, the survey asked almost 4000 people a range of questions as they left Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, including the reason for their visit, where they stayed and what things they have visited during their trip.

One noticeable area of change from the previous surveys is that around 40% of visitors now share their experiences online during and after their trip with almost a third uploading photos of their visit on social media sites.

Overall visitor satisfaction levels to these islands were very high, with an around 80% of visitors stating they were “very satisfied” with their visit. 

The main influences on visitors deciding to come to Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides were the fantastic scenery and landscape, as well as an interest in the archaeology and history of islands.

Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing said: “The fantastic results from the Islands Visitor Survey are a credit to the people working in the hotels and tourism sector on our islands, who give our guests a warm welcome and enjoyable holiday.

“With beautiful scenery, rich history and diverse culture it’s no surprise that Scotland’s islands are attracting more visitors and encouraging them to spend more and stay longer.

“In this Year of Homecoming as we prepare to host both the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, I am confident that 2014 will be a remarkable year for tourism. We have the opportunity to showcase the best of Scotland, build a lasting legacy and ensure the numbers of visitors to our islands continues to rise.”

Audrey MacLennan, Senior Tourism Manager at HIE, said:

“The survey findings provide us with information which will help us measure the economic impact of visitors to the islands. It also gives us some great insights into the visitor experience across all three island groups which, in turn, will help the tourism business community and others to spot opportunities and identify what they need to do to ensure the service and experience they offer is up to date with visitor expectations, which could ultimately lead to an increase in visitor numbers.”

Highlights of the Island Visitor Survey per island include:

Shetland: attracted 64,655 overnight/day visitors with a total spend of £16 million. The average length of time visitors are spending has risen to 10 nights. The most popular reason to visit Shetland was holiday/leisure purposes closely followed by business.

Orkney attracted 142,816 overnight/day visitors, spending over £31 million in the local economy over the period of a year. One noticeable area of change is that 38% of visitors to Orkney now shared their experiences on-line, the main activity being uploading photos and updating their status on Facebook.

The Outer Hebrides attracted 218,196 people spending over £53.5 million over a 12-month period. 48% of leisure visitors interviewed were returning to the islands having previously enjoyed holidays in the Outer Hebrides.


[1] **The 2006 Outer Hebrides Tourism Update reported visitor numbers of 171,137 annually and the 2006 Shetland Visitor Survey reported visitor numbers of 60,000.  More recent research in 2008 / 2009 in the Orkney Visitor Survey revealed 141,974 visitors to Orkney per year.

The Executive Summary and factsheets of the results from each Island region can be found at:


  • Cllr. Alasdair Macleod, Chair of CNES Sustainable Development Committee, said:
    “The results of the survey are invaluable as they provide us with an insight into the visitor experience within the Outer Hebrides.  It is very reassuring to see that satisfaction levels are so high and that the vast majority of visitors would recommend the Outer Hebrides as a holiday destination to their friends and relatives.  The Comhairle will continue to work with the local industry and VisitScotland to ensure that the numbers of visitors to our islands continue to rise.”
  • James Stockan, Chair of Orkney Islands Council’s Development and Infrastructure Committee said:
    “Tourism has long been at the heart of Orkney’s economy and the results of this survey give us confidence that this will be the case for some time to come.  The satisfaction levels expressed by tourists are particularly pleasing and are testament to the hard work and dedication to customer services of our industry providers.”
  • Malcolm Bell, Shetland Islands Council Convener, said:
    “I’m extremely pleased to see that Shetland continues to provide a high level of satisfaction to visitors, and that more and more people are heading to the isles to enjoy its outstanding natural beauty.  Tourism contributes significantly to the local economy, and I’m also heartened to see the increase in the number of business visitors which reflects current developments in the oil and gas sector.  I welcome this important piece of research, which will be valuable to us as a local authority.”
  • Mike Cantlay, Chairman of VisitScotland said:
    “Tourism is a key economic driver for many of Scotland’s islands as the Islands Visitor Survey has clearly demonstrated. It is great to see that visitor numbers are rising particularly given the challenging economic climate and that tourism continues to prove it’s a resilient and sustainable industry. With their breath-taking landscapes, rich archaeological history and exciting visitor attractions Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides are incredible places to visit time and time again.”


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