The selection process for the next contract to run ferry services to and from Bute, and throughout the Clyde and Western Isles, was launched on Tuesday.
The next Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) contract will begin on October 1, 2016, and will run for up to eight years.
Transport and islands minister Derek Mackay said Scottish ministers would provide funing of up to £1 billion to support the enhancement and development of services - on top of income from fares.
That funding will also support the use of fares based on road equivalent tariff (RET), which are not yet in effect on Bute’s routes but will have been in place for a year by the time the new contract begins.
Mr Mackay also promised that the new tender would be taken forward as a single contract, meaning there will be no opportunity for potential operators to ‘cherry-pick’ the most lucrative routes.
A Contract Notice has been submitted to the Official Journal of the European Union, signalling the Scottish Government’s intention to take forward a competition for the provision of the services from October 2016.
Preliminary work on the procurement exercise began last year, and today marks the start of the selection process inviting potential bidders to come forward.
“The Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services play a crucial role in the day-to-day lives of our island communities, enabling continued and sustainable economic growth,” Mr Mackay said.
“We have made clear our commitment to supporting them by ensuring we deliver safe and reliable services for ferry users.
“The Contract Notice is the first formal step in taking forward a competition for the next CHFS contract, which will run from 1 October 2016.
“We are looking to award a contract that runs for a period up to eight years. This will make it more attractive to potential bidders by giving the operator more opportunity to deliver service improvements and efficiencies over the course of the contract.
“The tendering team began the preliminary procurement steps last year, but this effectively starts the selection stage of the process and we are now encouraging potential bidders to come forward.
“A full public consultation exercise was undertaken during the Ferries Review, which helped to define the shape of future ferry services. The Ferries Plan, published in December 2012, will form the basis of the contract. This engagement process will continue so that all key stakeholders are kept fully informed throughout the procurement exercise.
“I also remain clear that there will be no unbundling of services, and reiterate that the tender will be taken forward as a single contract.
“We are now focused on ensuring a fair and open competition that leads to getting the very best deal for all of the communities of the Clyde and Hebrides.”