Political leaders have welcomed £7.7 million in funding for inter-island ferries in Argyll and Bute, Orkney and Shetland.
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes announced the extra cash in her latest budget announcement to the Scottish Parliament.
The move follows pressure from island communities for more investment in the service.
Ms Forbes also revealed the Scottish Government will double the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to £6.2m, in a bid to help tourist attractions and their communities make improvements to cope with “increased visitors”.
On the funding for ferries, political leader of Shetland Council, Steven Coutts said: “We’re delighted by the finance secretary’s announcement that the revenue deficit will be filled.
“We have been making the case to Scottish Government for some time and they have listened and acted. That is all we can ultimately ask of the government.”
Shetland Islands Council operates 12 ferries, serving nine remote islands and carrying around 750,000 passengers every year, but there was a funding shortfall of around £5.5m per year.
‘It’s how Shetland moves around’
Mr Coutts said the ferries are the “backbone” of the island community.
He added: “It’s how Shetland moves around so the fact that we’ve got this commitment in the draft budget that we can maintain that service at that level is to be very welcomed for a whole raft of economic, social and health reasons.”
Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart welcomed the funding but claimed it was “quite the coincidence” the funding had been announced “months before an election”.
I welcome the news that Shetland will receive additional funding for our internal ferry services.
Shetland's representatives have diligently and consistently campaigned for fair funding for Shetland's ferries for years and it is welcome that progress is finally being made.
— Beatrice Wishart MSP (@BeatriceWishart) January 28, 2021
The Liberal Democrat MSP said the island has been “consistently short-changed” and that “as a result there has been a considerable difference between what Shetland asked for and received from government”.
She added: “Significant work still needs to be done to modernise Shetland’s transport links and that will need great commitment from government over the coming years. I am committed to that modernisation campaign.”
The finance secretary confirmed the £7.7m funding would plug the funding gap facing the ferry services and extend the timetable and road equivalent tariff (RET) on Orkney’s inter-island ferries.
The Scottish Government has been urged to bring in cheaper ferry fares for passengers to Orkney, more than a decade after they were first rolled out in other parts of Scotland.
RET was introduced as a pilot on a number of west coast ferry routes in 2008, on all Clyde and Hebrides routes by 2015, with fares on routes to Shetland reduced in 2018.
The aim is to ensure that ferry fares are broadly similar to the cost incurred by someone driving the same distance as the ferry route.
Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan: “We are delighted that for the first time in a decade we actually have something extra to invest in both fares and service.
“The Orkney internal service is substantially behind what is called the routes and services methodology of the government so we provide less than everybody else because we’ve not had the funding to do it and this is a step forward.”
Mr Stockan said the funding would now allow five islands to have a Sunday service all year round, adding the economic activity of some of these islands would be “enhanced” as a direct result.
In announcing the doubling of the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to £6.2m, the finance secretary told MSPs she had recognised the “acute impact of the pandemic” on rural communities.
Councillor Derek Ross, member of the Moray Alliance Group, who has raised concerns that tourism facilities in Moray may start to fall behind neighbouring regions, welcomed the announcement.
He added that the region was under a “huge amount of pressure” last year as tourists flocked to the area on staycations amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Ross, who also sits on the board of the Cairngorm National Park, said: “There’s going to be such a stress on all our facilities with people going on staycations.
“We’re needing things like more car parking, more facilities for people travelling in camper vans and a lot of tracks have been under stress in the countryside.”
“We really need to build up our tourist infrastructure.
“Instead of closing toilets, we need to be opening toilets and we need to be signposting tourists to the best places to go.
“We don’t want reputational damage to Moray by poor tourist facilities.”