Maggie Jones on why it’s time to persuade overseas visitors to discover the UK’s rich heritage beyond the Capital
By any measure, British tourism is one of the UK’s largest industries. It contributes nearly £100bn to the economy of England alone. One in twelve jobs in the UK are either directly or indirectly benefitted by tourism. And it’s the UK’s third highest export earner.
But beneath these glowing statistics, there is an increasing belief that government fails to value its contribution or harness the innovation which would spread its success more widely in the future. Nowhere is this more apparent than the government’s approach to regional tourism. Sadly, the major cuts to Visit Britain and Visit England, combined with the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, have taken their toll. As a result, one of the biggest challenges facing the tourism sector is that of the 31 million visitors to the UK, over half only ever visit London and spend their money there. So our cities, heritage sites and coastlines are losing out.
British seaside towns are a case in point. Historically, they have been at the heart of our nation’s family holidays; but many are now in decline. Poor housing stock, high unemployment, anti-social behaviour and a lack of a modern infrastructure are holding back their development.
Great Yarmouth, for example, has a child deprivation rate of 49% in its town centre, and is crying out for investment to offer hope to the 1,000 young local people who are currently unemployed. Their prospects have been damaged by the Coalition’s abolition of both the Future Jobs Fund and the Sea Change programme, which was helping to drive cultural and creative regeneration in such areas.
Places like Great Yarmouth could be providing a renaissance in holidays for a new generation of staycationers and inbound tourists, as well as developing new economic focus. But they can’t be left to sort this alone – they need help and government should be providing the catalyst for change.
The creation of new economic hubs for entrepreneurs; revitalising the local fishing industries; encouraging new creative centres; tackling the delays in broadband roll out to support small businesses; encouraging the New Marine Conservation Zones; and, importantly, sorting out neglected transport links. All of these measures would make a major difference.
Similarly, our heritage sites and areas of outstanding natural beauty could play a much greater role in attracting visitors away from the London tourist trail. Britain has a wealth of historical buildings and castles. You only have to look at the success of Downton Abbey amongst US audiences to see the thirst that exists for historical immersion. Even so, many of our historical sites are in urgent need of repair and have outdated visitors’ centres and poor access routes. Organisations like the National Trust and English Heritage have done a fantastic job but they shoulder a burden of expectation that they are unable to fulfil alone.
Already more than a quarter of holidays taken by staycationers include a historic site. But our aim should be to increase this number and the quality of their experience. Most importantly, these sites need to become the ‘must see’ destination for the inbound tourists currently focussed on a holiday in the Capital.
Without a government strategy to revitalise our regional attractions and distribute more widely the benefits of tourist spending, tourism in the UK will remain a missed opportunity. It will be symptomatic of a wider economic worry, in which wealth and investment is being sucked into London at the expense of the regions – and we will all suffer from the unbalanced economic recovery that results.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords
Published 12th June 2014