The state-controlled ferry company confirmed in a statement that bookings would open from next month in a phased approach, with the first period covering March 31 to June 4, meaning island communities face an extended wait for the full timetable.
The announcement comes after online reservations opened in time for Christmas last year, allowing visitors to make advance holiday plans.
The ferry operator cited the need to wait for Transport Scotland (TS) to confirm 2023 fare levels, which is expected to happen in early January, before publishing the timetable.
But Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael criticised the delay as he labelled Scotland’s lifeline ferry services a “disgrace”. The Orkney and Shetland MP claimed the delay would hit the tourism industry, with would-be visitors unsure of their travel arrangements.
He said: “The next few days will see people everywhere book their summer holidays. Anyone interested in booking a holiday in the Hebrides will inevitably think twice rather than risk booking accommodation that they do not know they will be able to get to. For island communities depending on a short summer tourist season to see them through the winter, this is yet another kick in the teeth.
“The SNP/Green mismanagement of Scotland’s lifeline ferry services is a disgrace. If you told people in Glasgow that their train and buses would be treated in this way, there would be riots in George Square.
“At a time when the west coast islands of Scotland need a voice to speak for them, they are left instead with SNP MSPs and MPs who are missing in action. Their silence is deafening.
“Of course, the lack of a summer timetable is just the tip of the iceberg. Knowing when CalMac ferries are supposed to sail is no guarantee that they actually will.
"Just this week we have seen the Hebridean Isles taken out of service and Islay left on a skeleton timetable. The only people who stand to benefit from this shambles are those who work in Turkish shipyards.”
Last year online reservations on the timetable opened on December 20, 2021. The latest delay comes after CalMac published its winter timetable five months’ late.
CalMac said details such as sailing times for the summer had been agreed and were ready to be released as soon as a decision about fares is confirmed. But the publication delay has prompted concerns from some in the island community, with the start of the normal timetable community consultation process only starting in mid-October, with summer timetables normally live on October 30.
Joe Reade, chair of the Mull & Iona Ferry Committee, said the delay would be harmful to business.
He said: “We would normally expect summer timetables to be published early in the start of the proceeding winter, so before Christmas.
“To get it after Christmas, it impacts most significantly on tourist businesses, because this is the time of year when people are booking their holidays and want to secure their travel, and if they can’t book then they will get the impression that their travel is not guaranteed.
“They will be deterred from booking holidays, that is the risk. It’s less significant for islanders, we know the timings will be published, but for a tourist, going on the website seeing they can’t book a ferry when they can get a hotel, that’s not encouragement for our crucial tourist trade."
Despite this, Mr Reade claimed the publication timetable was progress from where CalMac timings had been before.
He said: “It is more notice than we had for the last timetable, which in the case of Mull, was the last island to have our timetable published, only a week before it came into effect. CalMac has been running behind with their timetable publishing for the last year.
“Publishing it in January is an improvement, and we are already being asked for our input into next winter's timetable, so they are working to catch it up … it’s progress from where they were, but it’s really unfortunate that they are publishing so late. We really need to be 12 months ahead.”
CalMac said timetable delays were also caused in part by the focus on a solution around the closure of Uig Harbour. Robin Currie, the leader of Argyll and Bute Council, expressed “grave concerns" the publication of late timetables posed “serious risks” to islands' tourism economy.
Robbie Drummond, chief executive of CalMac, said: “We apologise for the late publication of the summer 2023 timetable. We understand the impact this has and for the difficulties this causes to island communities and local businesses. The timetables will be issued once Transport Scotland have set the fares for 2023.
“Delivering timetables is highly complex and factors such as interdependencies between routes, berthing availabilities, connecting services and tidal timetable changes must be considered. Once finalised, staff must enter and quality control thousands of manual entries.
“Our operational planning and ticketing teams are now condensing timetable work that normally takes several months into as short a time as possible so we can open bookings as early as we can. This means that we must open our timetable for booking in phases to allow time for this work to be carried out accurately and efficiently. I wish to extend my gratitude to local communities and customers for their patience and understanding.”
A TS spokesperson said: “We appreciate the need to get bookings released so that businesses and individuals can plan ahead, and aim to confirm fares as soon as possible.
“In the longer term, the Islands Connectivity Plan will include a review of ferry fares, alongside our wider ‘fair fares’ review, to ensure that our fares policy continues to address the needs of island communities.”