Shetland attracts a new breed of knitting tourists

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FORGET your bucket and spade, your bikini and your sunscreen. For a properly cool summer holiday you need a nice woolly jumper.

As Scotland carves out a lucrative niche as a chill tourism refuge from Europe’s deadly heatwaves, one canny entrepreneur has the market stitched up.

Misa Hay is selling out her specialist knitting and hiking tours of cool, breezy Shetland. Her visitors do not just get to sport their knitwear on their holiday, they learn to make it too.

The Czech fell in love with the islands on a school exchange and, after 15 years in Scotland’s northern-most outpost, is passing on her love for its greatest craft to knitters from as far away as Japan, Texas and Tasmania.

Ms Hay said: “They come through the summer because it is cooler here. 

“One of the attractions of coming here is that they get a chance to wear the knitwear they can’t put on at home because it is too hot.

“Increasingly, we are hearing from people that they are escaping the heat of wherever they are from. 

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“So they do appreciate the cooler climate. This will increase in the future – people will be looking for colder places, like Shetland or Scandinavia.”

Shetland Wool Adventures, Ms Hay’s niche tour company, charges nearly £2,000 for a deeply immersive experience, a week of knitting and walking and, most importantly, understanding the people and the culture of islands that gave the world both Fair Isle and Shetland Lace.

Her business, mostly for the summer so far, is tapping in to two huge trends. First, her customers get to go somewhere that is not too warm. Second, they get to enjoy slow travel, to really get to know the people and place they are visiting.

Ms Hay said: “Our groups are small, generally 12 people, and they get to work with local people and they go hiking, exploring the outdoors as well.

“As well as Shetland Lace and Fair Isle knitting are learning about the sheep in their natural environment, the tour is designed to immerse themselves in the culture of the place.

“The priority for me is that when they come here is it not just a whistle-stop tour but they are meeting locals and doing local things.”

Shetland, after all, has been suffering bouts of extreme over-tourism, usually when a big boat full of tourists anchors at Lerwick, the islands’ capital.

Scottish tourism numbers rose from 2.75 million bed nights in 2016 to 3.5m last year, with the Highlands and Islands seeing particularly fast growth.

Attractions in the north and north-east recorded record numbers in 2018. Not including cruise visitors, there were 73,262 visits to Shetland in 2017. 

A report for the local council worked out they spent £23.2 million.

Ms May explained: “We have just had a big cruise liner in, the biggest one of the season, with 4,000 passengers on board. It is a stark contrast to our knitters. 

“We are getting a lot of these cruise liners, which are not about an individual approach, unless they book a private tour when they are on board.

“Shetland is really good at niche tourism, with small groups doing nature tours, photography and it feels less artificial and more authentic.”

Such tourism is also more lucrative, Ms Hay believes. “One of the shops told me my visitors spend more than when there is a liner in. Cruise liner passengers do not spend much.

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“That is because our visitors are looking for things made in Shetland and want to spend their money locally. That makes tourism sustainable. They want to eat local food, they want to look for local books. 

“I think it is quite rare to buy things that were made in the place you are because everything is so global. 

“People love being able to buy something special from the place where they are holidaying, they appreciate it and are happy to spend quite a lot of money on it.”

So who are the knitting tourists?

“Occasionally, we get men, but most of our customers are ladies, a mixture of ages, but predominately older ladies. However, we have had ones who are in their thirties. 

“It always amazes me that in their professional lives they could be lawyers or have big companies and they still to decide to come on a knitting holiday to Shetland.”

Ms Hay believes there is something relaxing about hand knitting with authentic, natural fibres. So people who de-stress with a craft hobby during their working week will happily do the same on their big annual break.

Knitting continues to boom. So is knitting tourism. It has flourished in Iceland and Ireland, rivals to Shetland’s craft traditions.

It would take an accomplished Shetland hand knitter a week – or 100 hours – to make an authentic Fair Isle jumper. So Ms May’s clients do not necessarily manage to do the same on their trip.

She finds they come prepared with their own woollens to wear on the island. 

“Our tour is about learning the techniques, being inspired. Then they buy the yarn and they go home and finish their projects.” 

And when they are finished they send pictures of their home-made Shetland knitwear back to the islands, a souvenir they have made themselves.

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