THE biggest-ever battle to find the best tourism businesses in the Highlands and Islands has started, with the number vying for honours reaching an unprecedented level.

For the third year in a row, the competition has scaled new heights with entries surpassing previous record-breaking levels.

A total of 232 businesses or individuals will compete in the 2017 Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) – 14 per cent up on last year’s figure.

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The number of entries and nominations for the competition has risen by 70 per cent since 2014 as more tourism operators bid to get their hands on the coveted piper trophies.

Judging started this week to find the winners in 16 categories with the best places to stay, eat and drink and enjoy the area’s sporting and musical culture among those to be honoured.

Craig Ewan, the HITA chairman, said: “The growth of HITA over the last three years has been amazing, with unparalleled numbers of people entering or being nominated.

“It demonstrates the strength of the industry in this region where tourism is so vital. It also reflects a confidence among operators who are providing an ever-improving quality of service.”