The controversy triggered by the Skye Bridge toll has certainly kept the island in the news. Some locals still argue that the £5.70 charge to cross the bridge keeps tourists and day-trippers away; others see it as a reliable alternative to the weather-bound ferries. But while the debate continues, one thing is certain: bridge or no bridge, holiday-makers pretty much abandon Skye in the winter.
Admittedly, seasonal business is a common problem throughout the Highlands, but remote islands such as Skye bear the brunt of it. The long journey - a four-hour drive from the nearest airport at Inverness - higher petrol costs and inhospitable weather mean many people choose cheap winter sun breaks instead. Then there's the fact that most hotels and restaurants on Skye close between October and April. It's this chicken-and-egg situation that the Highland of Scotland Tourist Board (HOST) wants to crack.
"There's a movement in the Highlands to get hotels open in the winter," says Eddie Spear, who kept his Three Chimneys restaurant at Colbost open for the first time in 16 years last winter. "We are in competition with the world, so we can't be closed."
Spear and his wife, Shirley, stayed open as part of a deal struck last year with Skye & Lochalsh Enterprise Company, part of the Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) organisation. The Spears wanted to add bedrooms to the 30-seat restaurant to increase profits. So the enterprise company granted the couple £50,000 towards the £435,000 cost of developing six luxury bedroom suites and refurbishing the restaurant.
The HIE also gave them 60% of the £35,000 marketing budget needed to kickstart the expanded business in its first year. The rest of the bill was financed by a £235,000 loan from Barclays (guaranteed by the DTI) and £150,000 from venture capital fund Highland Prospect.
The pay-off for the loan was that the Spears would be fuelling the local economy and creating jobs.
More importantly, the Spears were keen to stay open during the winter. "There's a feeling that if the Spears can do it on Skye, then others will follow suit," says Eddie.
It does look as if they can do it. Despite seeing occupancy plummet to 26% in January, Eddie says turnover this year is a smidge under £500,000, compared with just £170,000 the previous year when it was just a restaurant opening seasonally.
At £200 a night for dinner, bed and breakfast, the prices are high for the island. But the Spears reckon the "phenomenal" occupancy in March of 60% and the expected 80% in May proves there is a demand for luxury accommodation and gourmet food.
To back this up, most guests are foodies or stressed professionals from central Scotland who want a relaxing long weekend, although visitors are also coming from as far away as the USA and other parts of Europe.
The success of this five-star business has touched a raw nerve in a hotel community comprised mainly of two- or three-star businesses. The fear among some locals is that the average customer today is looking for a higher standard than most hotels and guest houses on the island can provide. Some argue that if the island is to become a competitive destination in its own right, everyone will need to upgrade.
Chirsty MacKinnon, HOST area manager for Skye, cautiously agrees that better-grade hotels seem to be doing well, despite the strong pound and the island's high fuel prices. "We hear from members time and time again that the strong pound is detrimental, but those with a high-quality product seem to be doing OK, so perhaps there's a need to look at niche markets," she says.
One hotel that is already upgrading is the four-star Cuillin Hills hotel at Portree. Its Devon-based owner, Kevin Wickman, has pumped £1.5m into the 30-bedroom property since he bought it out of liquidation in 1993. He plans a further £1m refurbishment and extension programme, for which he is getting a £500,000 grant from the Highlands & Islands Enterprise network.
But general manager Murray McPhee warns that upgrading has its pitfalls. He says that although many hotels have reached a stage where they need to upgrade, grants only cover a small proportion of the costs. He says there is still a niche for less expensive guest houses. "They should only upgrade within their market segment to attract different people and budgets," he says.
The Scottish Tourist Board (STB) is a driving force to improving quality. But as most hotels on Skye have fewer than 20 rooms and are run as small businesses, the STB star system has been met with mixed feelings.
Christine Moore, chairman of the local Hospitality Association, is a strong supporter but says the problem for some small hotels is that they cannot afford to be graded.
"The tourist board is trying to get hotels to give service above and beyond the call of duty. It will get tougher as the system gets under way," explains Moore.
One argument for encouraging hotels to stay open all the year round is that it will help improve hospitality standards on the island. For instance, if employers no longer need to lay off staff each year, they are more likely to invest in training.
But despite such advantages and the fact that his own hotel stays open, McPhee is wary of encouraging year-round trading. He cites the fine balance between supply and demand on the island: "In winter, there are too many hotels and in summer there aren't enough. There wouldn't be room for all of us if everyone stayed open."
Fresh food supply problems
It would bring other problems, too. Getting fresh supplies of food to Skye is a headache at the best of times. Shirley Spear, chef-proprietor at the Three Chimneys, says she watches the weather and plans ahead all the time. "If the boats can't go out, there's no fish. People have to understand that."
Another problem is that not all hotels have the luxury destination appeal of the Three Chimneys - although weather-proof attractions such as Dunvegan Castle, the Talisker distillery, Aros Heritage Centre and the newly opened Brightwater Visitor Centre are now open year-round. Skye is also putting itself on the culinary map with the annual Skye & Lochalsh food festival.
MacKinnon agrees that opening in the winter can be risky and that not every hotel could do it: "It's a big step because the overheads are huge. The cost of living and fuel is greater here and [for UK visitors] it can be more expensive to get here than some places abroad," she explains.
Skye is certainly struggling to compete with cheap winter-sun package holidays, but the problem is closer to home, too. Room rates on the island have traditionally been attractive, particularly during the winter. At Cuillin Hills, for example, rates are £38 for one night in the winter and £60 in the summer, with room occupancy at 50% and 97%, respectively. But, as McPhee says, "The rest of Scotland is discounting so we are having to compete. In the past our prices could draw people up but now we have to keep people coming back."
Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board
Registered accommodation: 30 hotels;14 guest houses; 1 restaurant with rooms; more than 140 B&Bs
Number of visitors: April 1998 to April1999, 325,652; April 1999 to April 2000,320,791 (Tourist Information Centre statistics)
Tourist board: The Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board is the statutory body responsible for promoting and developing tourism in the area and drawing together the area tourist boards into a pan-Highland unit. It is financed through membership subscriptions, the Highland Council and the Scottish Tourist Board, as well as income from trading activities.
The Three Chimneys
Tel: 01470 511258
Cuillin Hills Hotel
Tel: 01478 612003
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 1-7 June 2000