Natural Retreats UK named as preferred bidder for CairnGorm Mountain resort
A leisure business could take over Scotland's only funicular railway and the UK's highest restaurant.
Wilmslow-based Natural Retreats UK Ltd has been named preferred bidder to operate the CairnGorm Mountain snowsports centre near Aviemore.
The site's funicular railway was opened in 2001.
It connects a base station with the Ptarmigan Restaurant 1,097m (3,599ft) up Cairn Gorm mountain.
The railway and centre are owned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a public agency.
Tourism business Natural Retreats owns holiday accommodation at John O'Groats, in Cornwall and other locations in the UK and abroad.'Complex procurements'
HIE chief executive Alex Paterson said: "This is a significant step forward in our procurement process, but it is not the end.
"Over the coming weeks, HIE will hold further discussions with Natural Retreats on a number of points of detail, before deciding whether or not to proceed to awarding a contract.
"This is a normal procedure in complex procurements which follow the 'competitive dialogue' methodology."
He added: "Whatever the outcome of the upcoming discussions with our preferred bidder, the railway and visitor facilities, and, indeed, the wider Cairngorm estate, will remain in public ownership through HIE."
The centre is managed by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML), which became a subsidiary of HIE in 2008.
The enterprise agency said it had always been clear that it would not run CML long-term.
HIE's decision to advertise for a new operator followed an options appraisal, carried out last year by consultants Ernst and Young.
During the appraisal, nine organisations said they were interested in taking over the operation and developing the resort.
HIE had provided £19.42m - almost £5m more than expected - towards the £26m cost of building and running the funicular.
In 2010, the Scottish Parliament's audit committee said the agency's failure to take account of risks involved in running the funicular railway had led to "spiralling" costs.