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Author: Justin Merrigan/25 October 2019/Categories: Interview, Ferry news
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Way up in the far northern reaches of Scotland in the beautiful Highland region, a cruise and tour operation is enjoying phenomenal success on what could be considered as the most mystical of waterways, Loch Ness.
Award-winning cruise and tour operator Loch Ness by Jacobite has been revealed as one of Scotland’s most popular paid-for attractions outside the country’s central belt stretching from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Hardly surprising when one takes in the natural beauty of the landscape sweeping down to the loch, which was carved by glaciers at the heart of the Great Glen fault.
At the helm of Loch Ness by Jacobite is owner and managing director Freda Newton, who bought the business in 2002. With a vision to open up Loch Ness’s shores to more intrepid adventurers, including tourists hoping for a glimpse of the legendary Loch Ness Monster, Newton has grown passenger numbers from 35,000 to over 300,000 today – a remarkable achievement.
Sailing from its base at Dochgarroch Lock on the Caledonian Canal to Urquhart Castle which stands over Loch Ness from a rocky outcrop, Loch Ness by Jacobite welcomed a record-breaking 315,000 visitors in 2018. This marked a growth of 9% from 2017 and was well over the national average of just 0.1%. Newton attributes the success to a variety of factors.
“Last year was an incredible time at Loch Ness by Jacobite,” she says. “We celebrated a record-breaking number of visitors to the loch, as well as the launch of our new custom-designed catamaran, the Wight Shipyard-built Jacobite Maverick, which across the fleet allows us to take a total of 809 people onto Loch Ness every hour. We welcomed guests from 89 different nationalities, which highlights the international appeal of the area. New flight routes into Inverness Airport and the opening of our retail destination and café in Dochgarroch at the end of June mean we can only expect this growth to continue.”
Investment in the new catamaran was a significant step and, like the operation itself, Jacobite Maverick is unique. “Equipped with onboard sonars and TV screens, our Nessie enthusiasts won’t miss a blip,” comments Newton. “Sticking to the trendsetter description, Jacobite Maverick’s environmental credentials leave other boats green with envy. With an eco-friendly design for lower fuel consumption and water waste, she gets a big green tick from us.”
As with any business, Loch Ness by Jacobite faces challenges, one of the biggest being the Scottish highland weather. However, Newton looks on the bright side. “It’s no secret that we do not have fantastic weather all year round,” she says. “But what we lack in sunshine, we make up for in landscapes rich with colour and nature. While we cannot guarantee the weather, we can guarantee a memorable experience.”
For when the weather does turn “dreich”, guests can now enjoy An Talla by Loch Ness, the new visitor centre and café that opened its doors in June. The development came about after the partial relocation of Loch Ness by Jacobite from its original Inverness base at Tomnahurich Bridge to a temporary building at Dochgarroch Lock.
“Dochgarroch is a beautiful area that has a fantastic story behind it,” explains Newton. “Home to the manmade part of the Caledonian Canal built by Thomas Telford. We have much more space at Dochgarroch Lock, with a large car park area available for coaches and cars. It is also where Jacobite Rebel and Jacobite Maverick depart from, so with more cruise options, parking and footfall, the move from Inverness seemed like the right thing to do – it is also closer to Loch Ness.”
Located in the former Dochgarroch Hall, a Victorian building that had been steadily falling into disrepair, the centre includes a ticket reception and entrance hall, a retail outlet celebrating Highland produce, a 90-seat café built around a central courtyard, and an external terrace overlooking the Caledonian Canal towpath and quayside.
As ever, the hands-on Newton toured the UK’s best cafés, bakeries, tearooms and craft stores to develop her vision. The result is a development that is sympathetic to the distinctive building retaining the original character of the hall.
“The expansion of the Loch Ness by Jacobite fleet and shoreside facilities reflects the hugely positive outlook towards the region’s tourism sector, with our reputation for hospitality renowned the world over,” she says. “It’s experiences like these that make the Highlands such a desirable destination, and it’s no surprise that visitor numbers continue to increase.”
The company Newton now operates is a far cry from the one she bought back in 2002, and the transformation of the business into a slick operation with four vessels offering a choice of cruises has been rightly recognised. In 2015, Newton was named Highland Business Leader of the Year, and she was made an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list for services to economic and community development in the Highlands of Scotland. She was also awarded the prestigious VisitScotland–Caledonian MacBrayne Silver Thistle Award in recognition of her pivotal role in the region’s tourism industry.
This year, Irish travel operator CIE awarded Loch Ness by Jacobite its best UK Loch Cruise operator title. Without hesitation, Newton attributes the success and recognition to teamwork.
“Everyone in the business has their part to play and it is our people that deliver the service and all we have to do is give them the tools that they need to do their job to the best of their ability,” she says. “We need to give the customer what they want to provide genuine and memorable experiences. What people want to see is Loch Ness, what they experience is Loch Ness by Jacobite. We are always aiming to strive for better. Treating our visitors not as tourists, but as guests.”
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