OLTA members are drawn from all sectors of the tourism industry with activity providers, accommodation, attractions, restaurants, pubs, retailers and independent businesses all listed on our site.
Today we're looking at marine tourism with an interview with Tony Hill who along with his wife Jess own and operate Seafari Adventures. Their business recently won the coveted 5 Star VisitScotland quality assurance award for its popular wildlife experience tourism boat trips from the small village of Ellenabeich on the Isle of Seil. This island is around 16 miles south of Oban and access to the Isle of Seil is via the famous Bridge over the Atlantic.
Easdale Island, the smallest inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides, is located a short 2 minute ferry ride from Ellenabeich. Ellenabeich and Easdale Island together are known as Easdale and visitors from all over the world descend on this tiny island for the for the annual World Stone Skimming competition held in the now flooded former slate quarries.
Seafari Adventures started back in 1999 and were the first dedicated marine wildlife tour company and the first in Scotland to use a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB). I asked Tony about his business.
1. What inspired you to start the business?
I had been 'touring' west Scotland with my previous employments as a teacher based in Perthshire. We had a diving club at the school with two inflatables. We also chartered a 74 ft ex trawler for a week twice a year and I was sent on expedition with pupils and friends. Went to loads of places saw lots of interesting wildlife. When our children left school it was time to give up the day jobs and head west.
2. The businesses has grown over the years and your recent win of a 5 Star award must be very satisfying – what ambitions do you still have for the business?
Everyone associated with Seafari has worked very hard to help us gain the award. Seafari was involved in the trials when the wildlife experience grading was established. At every grading our actual tour has never wavered from 5 stars. Our Achilles heel has always been our ticket office - a grade 2 listed building with and internet speed to match.
As we had a ticket office - the only boat operator to have and staff their own ticket office on site - it became part of our award. Seafari has invested heavily in IT to raise the profile of the ticket office. Our new digital ticketing system is in its early stages. Working with ADS Digital we have a fully interactive display where the customer can view any of our tours in any of the selected languages. The unit allows the customer to purchase their ticket from the machine which is connected to our live booking system. Progress is to roll the system out to other display units in tourism hubs and to attract other tourism companies so the display unit not only advertises the business but let's the customer book and pay for their ticket at the machine. Digital technology is making huge strides, as a company we must embrace this technology even though we live in an area of poor internet speed and no mobile phone signal. Thankfully on the day of the inspection there was sufficient internet speed to drive the system.
As for future plans for the business: We have a number of tourism related plans. It is however difficult to expand without sufficient infrastructure at our home base. Between Seafari Adventures (tourism) and Seafari Marine Services we operate a fleet of 7 commercial vessels. Every vessel has to be fuelled and maintained. When we can do this more efficiently it is our intention to expand our European presence. Seafari currently works with a small number of major tour companies. We believe this market can be expanded but we cannot look at attracting more customers to Easdale unless the infrastructure improves. It is currently at near capacity.
3. Protecting our marine habitat is key to a sustainable marine tourism industry – do you think Argyll and Bute balances the often conflicting demands of the fishing industry with eco-tourism and marine tourism well or are there areas of conflict where things could be done better?
You specifically mention fishing and conflicting with Eco or marine tourism. This is a debatable and contentious topic. There is a new large Marine Protected Area extending from the Sound of Mull to Jura. In my opinion this MPA will not drastically affect what species Seafari customers will see on our tours. That doesn't mean to say the underwater habitat will not benefit. If the statement is referring to salmon farming as fishing then I am concerned about the detrimental affect of an intense number of farms in close proximity. There has to be fishing and farming, but there also needs to be space for wildlife. There is plenty of space around Argyll's coast. The issue is everyone wants the same prime areas.
4. Safety at sea is obviously important for everyone – what safely precautions do you take to keep visitors safe whilst still giving them the adventure ride that is part of a trip through the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpools?
The Corryvreckan whirlpool works four times a day. Just because one is heading to 'The Corryvreckan doesn't mean they are off on an adrenaline rush. At certain times of certain days groups swim across the Corryvreckan. Seafari's basic tour is a wildlife tour. Of the two hours aboard our boat perhaps 20 minutes only is spent in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Our guides will cover many topics from the lighthouse at Fladda to sea eagles and seals. If you are looking for cetaceans it is highly unlikely they will be in the actual whirlpool area.
Seafari does run 'Whirlpool Specials' these tours are to see the Corryvreckan at its best. Due to the underwater topography the most impressive whirlpools occur on the ebb tide. Unlike most other operators Seafari only offers whirlpool specials on the ebb tide. We also insist the tide is at least 3.9m. Again we were the first boat operator to offer these specific tours.
As far as the customer is concerned they are just getting on a boat trip. What the customer is not aware of is the structure behind the tours. As we have our own ticket office on site every boat leaving Easdale is monitored throughout its journey until it returns to Easdale. Customers are provided with quality waterproofs and compulsory foam lifejacket. We also have our own fall-back system to assist any of our boats. All our skippers live within 3 miles of Easdale. Our crew live on Easdale island.
For whirlpool specials either two boats will travel together or if it's a single boat out on its own we have a skipper and crew on 'standby' at short notice. The skipper is required to telephone the office once the boat has disengaged from the whirlpools.