Tourism is big business and the UK is a prime destination, yet it’s an afterthought when it comes to Government policy. It’s time for the Government to appoint a dedicated Minister of Tourism, says Sebastien Kurzel.
A number of Britain’s most well-known companies from British Airways to Thomas Cook built their global brands off tourism. A number of great British entrepreneurs, such as Mike Gooley of Trailfinders, Sir Brian Souter of Stagecoach, and hotel developers such as Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia and Jasminder Singh have made their names in the hospitality and tourism trade.
Yet the current Minister for Tourism, Tracey Crouch, is also Minister for Sport and Heritage. That’s not all – she is also responsible for the National Lottery and the government’s work on loneliness. Does she have enough time to give British tourism the attention it deserves? Despite Ms Crouch’s skills as a Minister, I personally find that hard to believe.
However, having a strategy for British tourism has never been so important. With Brexit on the horizon, Britain’s tourist trade faces an uncertain future. There is a concern in some quarters that as well as making the country more difficult for tourists to enter from Europe, the Brexit vote damaged our international brand – which could reduce the number of tourists choosing to travel to the UK in general.
The real travesty is that the UK has a lot of gain from tourism. There is a significant opportunity for the country if we want to take it. The World Tourism Council recently suggested the Government was not taking enough action, despite the fact that the Council predicts tourism could create around 400,000 new UK jobs over the next 10 years.
People are travelling more and spending more while they’re on their holiday. VisitBritain estimates more than 39 million visits to the UK in 2017, up 6.2% on 2016. This forecast rises to 41.7 million visits in 2018 with inbound tourist spending of £26.9 billion, an increase of 6.8% on 2017. Britons holidaying in the UK also add to these figures. In 2017 Britons spent a record £7.9 billion, up 6% on the previous year.
Edinburgh and London are perennial favourites with overseas holidaymakers. In fact, London was Europe’s top-performing city in 2016 with visitors splashing out in the region of $14.7 million. But sadly London slipped to third place in 2017 and this is an early warning sign of things to come. Travellers, especially millennials, are looking for different things and we can’t rely on them to be as impressed by our world-class heritage sites as previous generations.
This change in traveller behaviour and attitudes is going to be increasingly important to the future of our tourist trade. It means that we all need to work together to support smaller enterprises offering unique experiences; businesses often located outside of our main tourist centres.
The changing needs of tourists is reflected in the growing numbers leaving London behind in favour of regional cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle. In fact, 12.7 million overseas tourists visited cities outside London from January to September last year, a rise of 4% cent.
The sustainability of our tourist trade lies in the hands of our regions and that means we need a strategy that looks in detail at their needs. The Government published a Tourism Strategy in 2016 but it is woefully inadequate. It follows the template of the Industrial Strategy almost to the letter and is, frankly, not fit for purpose. The sad thing is, it was heralded by the travel industry – but that only goes to show how low our expectations really are.
There is a prevailing view in this country, perpetrated by successive governments, that tourism ‘just happens’. We are blessed with a rich and unique history, wonderful old towns and cities, beautiful coastlines, a vibrant culture and traditions renowned the world over, so what’s the problem? We have built it, so they will come. But that’s naïve in the extreme, and our confidence alone will not immunise us against falling visitor numbers in the future.
Right now, the Government is not taking UK tourism anywhere near seriously enough. In the introduction to the Government’s ‘Tourism Action Plan – One Year On’, Minister John Glen notes the good growth figures from 2017 and writes: ‘We in Government must do our bit to help maintain that growth’. In my view, and that of many others, the Government needs to do a lot more than just a ‘bit’, and needs to do more than ‘maintain’ growth.
But that won’t be possible if there isn’t a single individual in the Government who can give tourism the dedicated focus it deserves; someone who can help them come up with new ideas, and execute them effectively. This single individual will also ensure that there is someone that the rest of the industry can talk to, and hold to account if the government takes steps – such as making it more difficult for Asian tourists to get visas – that slows down growth in the industry.
If we don’t get our act together, show some real ambition, and appoint a dedicated Minister, we could be facing a very large hole in our GDP. And post-Brexit, that is something we just cannot afford.