The best places in the Highlands and Islands to eat, drink, stay and enjoy the area’s wildlife, culture and scenery have been rewarded in the annual tourism ‘Oscars’.
The winners of this year’s Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) range from a seafood stall to a shark spotting experience and from the UK’s first crowdfunded bar to a centre showcasing traditional skills.
In all, winners were announced in 14 categories which had attracted entries and nominations from 163 businesses and individuals.
HITA chairman Craig Ewan said: “Many congratulations to all our winners and those who were shortlisted for awards. It has been another highly successful year for tourism in the Highlands and Islands and this is reflected in the quality of entries and nominations we received.
“The standard rises year on year which shows the strength and confidence of the industry and the level of service provided to visitors.”
For the first time the ceremony was held without a professional host. Instead, Annie Bonney and Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, who are studying BA (Hons) Drama and Performance at Inverness College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, jointly anchored the event after winning a competition held during the Year of Young People.
The awards finale, held in front of 300 industry representatives at the Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness, was addressed by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs.
She said: “I’d like to offer my congratulations to the finalists and winners of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) for their fantastic work in encouraging people to visit the area by providing high quality visitor experiences. It’s no wonder Lonely Planet recently named the Highlands and Islands as one of the top regions in the world for travellers in 2019.
“I was particularly pleased to see the awards pay tribute to Scotland’s Year of Young People with the impressive young presenters and recognition for young marketing talent. I look forward to working with the industry to build on this tremendous success.
“I also hope the news that hotels across Scotland will benefit from a cap to their business rates until 2022 will be welcomed and will help create a more secure, sustainable future for Scotland’s hospitality sector.”
Inverness and Argyll and the islands enjoyed the most success with five trophy winners, while others went to Ross-shire, Moray, Strathspey and Sutherland.
HITA, which was held in association with SSE for a sixth successive year, is recognised as one of the premier industry hospitality awards programmes in Scotland.
Mike Seaton, SSE’s Director of Development, said: “SSE is now in its sixth year of sponsoring the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards and the quality and calibre of the winners and nominees this year have once again demonstrated that business, talent and innovation are thriving in this region.
“Energy and tourism are two of the most important sectors for the Highland economy. By working together we are able to create a lasting legacy for Highlands and Islands through projects like the South Loch Ness Trail and events like the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards.”
HITA winners (with the exception of the Highland Rising Star and Highland Ambassador) go on to compete at the glittering Scottish Thistle Awards next year.
Rebecca Brooks, Chair of the Scottish Thistle Awards industry panel, said: “On behalf of the panel, I would like to congratulate all the winners of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards.
“It is fantastic to see businesses and individuals have their commitment and dedication to tourism in the local region recognised at these prestigious awards, especially coming just a week after the Highlands & Islands was named in the top 10 Best in Travel destinations for 2019 by Lonely Planet.
“I’d like to wish all the HITA winners, the very best for the national final.”
HITA board director Elizabeth Mackintosh, who has made an outstanding contribution to tourism in the north of Scotland for more than five decades was named the 2019 Highland Ambassador.
The owner of Achmony Holidays, which provides self-catering accommodation at Drumnadrochit, Loch Ness, was a pioneer in the self-catering sector and a founding member of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers. She was a member of the board of Inverness and Nairn area Tourist Board and also of the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board.
She was the inaugural chairperson of HITA, a post she held for five years, and was also on the steering group to set up VisitInvernessLochNess (VILN) Tourism BID.
Presenting the award, Craig Ewan, the HITA chair, said: “Elizabeth has been a driving force in collaborative thinking and in getting destinations to work together in Highland Tourism for more than 50 years.
“In that time, she has been a guide and a mentor for those setting up a tourism business for the first time, a ‘go-to’ person for advice and someone who is totally passionate about promotion of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland”.
MacGregor’s Bar, in Inverness, which has been operating for only a year and was set up by crowdfunding, took the title for Best Bar/Pub. Judges said: “Appealing to all ages, the history-focused Scottish bar has a great beer garden in the city centre, a menu bursting with unique food and drink combinations and a team dedicated to ensuring that customer satisfaction is at an all-time high”.
The Best Visitor Attraction award went to Cruise Loch Ness, which has taken more than 1.5 million passengers onto the famous waterway since 1968. Judges said: “The continuous re-investment in the business has allowed it to thrive in recent years. Whilst it has certainly made the most of digital opportunities, other highlights include the commitment to staff training and effective collaboration with others”.
Inverness Taxis picked up the Innovation in Tourism award. Judges said the company, which has a fully-computerised system, GPS tracking, free booking app, baggage drop-off service and rucksack and bike forwarding, is a “great example of a company seeking new and innovative ways to benefit the business and the customer”.
The Working Together for Tourism category was won by Mull Eagle Watch, which started in 2000 at Loch Frisa to allow people to get great views of sea eagles without disturbing them. It is now a credited 5-star VisitScotland attraction and works in partnership with a local golf club. Judges said: “The collaboration shows how two very different companies can come together and offer a superb tourism experience.”
Another wildlife company, Basking Shark Scotland, took the Best Outdoor/Adventure Experience title.Based in Oban, it runs boat tours from April to October. Judges said their focus on the wider environment inspires guests who come on their trips to follow their lead in keeping the local area clean: “An active science programme culminated in them having their first scientific paper published in ground-breaking basking shark research. They also found the time to organise a successful beach clean after discovering a remote beach on the Isle of Mull covered in plastic”.
Oban Live, formed in 2016 and the biggest live music event in Argyll & Bute, won the Best Cultural Event or Festival crown. HITA judges said: “The professional team who run the event have demonstrated dedication and commitment, as well as injecting an economic boost of £1.4 million to the area.”
The Purvai Festival, in Stornoway, which celebrates Asian arts and culture, received a commendation in this category.
Emma Clark, from Glenegedale House in Islay, was named Tourism and Hospitality Hero. Judges said Emma builds up a rapport with each guest long before they set foot over the threshold of the hotel: “This personal touch, from the initial enquiry to the moment they arrive, ensures that all guests feel at home the minute they enter Glenegedale House”.
The Seafood Shack, set up in Ullapool by two local women, won the award for Best Eating Experience. Judges said the team “work hard to ensure customer satisfaction is key with sustainability and provenance at the core of their offering. With passion, care and enthusiasm, they produce fresh, locally sourced, award winning food every day”.
Also in Wester Ross, Pool House, at Achnasheen, won the title of Most Hospitable B&B/Guest House. Judges said “a truly wonderful experience” awaits guests at Pool House. “A historic house dating back 300 years which provides a truly unique stay for their guests”.
Links House at Royal Dornoch was crowned Most Hospitable Hotel, with judges praising the 15-bedroom luxury hotel’s “bespoke customer experience”.
The Best Self Catering/Alternative Accommodation Experience accolade went to self-catering business Where Stags Roar, in Newtonmore, with judges enthusing: “The level of attention to detail, customer satisfaction and repeat business is exemplary and has helped grow this impressive self-catering experience”.
The Speyside Cooperage Visitor Centre, in Craigellachie, the only working cooperage in the UK where visitors can experience the ancient art of coopering, won the Best Heritage Tourism Experience award. The five-star credited VisitScotland attraction welcomes people from over 70 counties and the judges said it appeals to a mass of ages due to its unique blend of traditional rituals and modern-day technology.
During the Year of Young People, three winners were chosen for the Highland Rising Star award – Brian Sharp, from tour company Scottish Routes; John McNulty, from the Etive Restaurant in Oban; and Euan Walker, from Achnagairn Estate Kirkhill, near Inverness.
The HITA judges said: “We were delighted with the calibre, and emerging talent, of the young people who applied for the Rising Star award. They showed true commitment and passion, striving to make the Highlands and Islands a world class destination. The three nominees were all so deserving that the unanimous decision was made to award all three as Highland Rising Stars 2018.”
Awards were also presented to students from Inverness College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, who won competitions organised in partnership with HITA.
As well as Annie Bonney and Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, who presented the awards, Leanne Munro, a 3rd year BA (Hons) Visual Communication and Design student at Inverness College UHI won a separate competition to create a marketing campaign aimed at attracting the next generation of visitors to the Highlands and Islands. Her design was on display at the awards ceremony.
The full list of winners is
Best Self-Catering/Alternative Accommodation Experience
Where Stags Roar, Newtonmore
Best Cultural Event or Festival
Commended -Purvai Festival, Stornoway
Best Heritage Tourism Experience
Speyside Cooperage Visitor Centre, Craigellachie
Best Eating Experience
The Seafood Shack, Ullapool
Best Outdoor/Adventure Experience
Basking Shark Scotland, Oban
MacGregor’s Bar, Inverness
Best Visitor Attraction
Cruise Loch Ness, Inverness
Innovation in Tourism
Most Hospitable B&B / Guest House
Pool House, Achnasheen, Wester Ross
Most Hospitable Hotel
Links House at Royal Dornoch, Sutherland
Working Together for Tourism
Mull Eagle Watch
Highland Rising Star
John McNulty, Etive Restaurant in Oban
Euan Walker, Achnagairn Estate, Kirkhill, Inverness
Brian Sharp, Scottish Routes
Tourism and Hospitality Hero
Emma Clark, Glenegedale House, Islay