The UK’s tourism sector supports a remarkable 3.1 million jobs. In 2019, prior to Covid-19, it was our third largest ‘export’ industry. Visitors to our beautiful coasts and countryside, vibrant urban centres, and extraordinary cultural heritage sites contributed £127bn to the economy – around 9 per cent of our GDP. This included coastal and rural economies where other industries have been lost or declined. When it comes to the potential to restore prosperity and pride to overlooked communities, tourism has a clear role.
Equally clear, however – even before the pandemic – was the uneven spread across the UK of the benefits of tourism. In 2019, London was unsurprisingly miles ahead of any other English region in attracting visitor spend. The North East, despite its castles, cathedrals, museums, retail centres and stunning coastlines, attracted the least. Clearly, it is not a lack of a tourism offer that led to the divide in regional tourism spend between that region (£4.5bn) and the North West, which attracted £12bn. But the North East, like so many places around the UK, has long had its tourism potential stymied by a lack of public awareness, inadequate connectivity, and expensive rail fares.
Of course tourism is not the answer to levelling up everywhere, but it is an important tool. As we move into a third year of international travel restrictions, there is a clear opportunity. We can capitalise on the recent boom in domestic holidays, and promote sustainable growth and good jobs in some of the less prosperous parts of the UK.
The pandemic did not impact all regions equally. Gateway cities like London, Birmingham and Edinburgh saw hotel occupancy rates nosedive. Some regions, like Greater Manchester, faced tiered restrictions for longer than other areas. Areas with a high economic reliance on tourism, such as Cumbria and Cornwall, suffered disproportionately at first, before benefiting from a renewed interest in domestic tourism.
In the tourism recovery plan, the government has some of the right ambitions. There are targets to grow visitor spending in all regions of the UK, going beyond the usual tourism hotspots and into lesser-known destinations. Importantly, the government acknowledges the need for better transport and transport incentives, targeted advertising and campaigns, and place-based funding.
However, the plans rely too heavily on the Towns Fund and other often short term or piecemeal funding pots. We need more strategic support for local authorities, and for destination management organisations (DMOs) such as Marketing Manchester or Visit Cornwall. Nick de Bois’ recent review of DMOs in England portrays a fragmented and underfunded sector, doing their best in difficult circumstances. These local and regional organisations, working closely with local authorities, are best placed to deliver successful, integrated tourism strategies, and to improve much-loved local attractions and services. With more streamlined resourcing, DMOs could make a far greater impact on maximising the potential of regional tourism.
Tourism only benefits communities if it is well-managed. We have all heard stories about the disruption caused to local areas when individual beauty spots are suddenly discovered and descended upon by thousands of people, without the management or facilities in place to support them. And it is a problem familiar to towns that rely only on seasonal tourism. In these areas the disparity between average wages (often much lower than the UK average) and house prices (often much higher), inflated by the prevalence of second homes and short term lets, is often pushing long term residents into poverty and homelessness – or simply forcing them away.
For tourism to be sustainable and create good jobs, communities must be able to appeal to visitors all year round, not just during the ‘on season’ periods. Vibrant high streets and town centres are central to this. Labour’s plan to rejuvenate our high streets includes cutting, and eventually replacing, business rates, to support the small businesses and sole traders that make an area special.
Tourism is at its best when the appeal of a place is linked to its individual heritage and history, while serving the needs of its residents. Visitors are not drawn to identikit town centres or declining high streets – and residents do not want them either. That is why we must nurture unique local and independent businesses and attractions, and support local authorities and DMOs to take a holistic approach to tourism development. It means attractions designed and maintained with the area’s character, the environment and the wider community in mind. It means implementing pedestrian areas and cycling lanes, as well as bus and rail passes, to encourage tourists to get around sustainably.
Some of the challenges of making tourism work for all communities require national policy interventions. They need to happen anyway, to address years of cuts and to spread opportunity, prosperity and power across the country. They need to happen to improve life for long term residents as well as visitors. The cost and quality of rail and bus services must be fixed if tourists are to be attracted to all corners of the UK. Wages, workers’ rights and development opportunities in the hospitality and leisure sectors must improve if people are to be attracted to these fulfilling but challenging careers. And everyone in the community, including those who work in the tourism sector, need a good home.
Second homes and short-term lets are causing a housing crisis in many popular tourist destinations across the UK. Accelerated by the pandemic, these areas have seen house prices soar and availability drop, as properties are bought up as second homes or holiday rental lets. Houses are left empty for large chunks of the year, causing permanent populations to dwindle. This has disastrous impacts on the community – school closures, bus service cuts, and other services disappearing as demand drops.
Labour would prioritise security and prosperity for our communities. We would slash affordable rents to around 30 per cent of average household income, give first-time buyers first dibs on new homes and prevent foreign buyers from being able to buy up homes off plan, before local people get a look in. It’s also clear that local authorities in high-tourism areas need more powers to tackle the pressures on housing in their communities. In tourism as in most sectors, ‘levelling up’ requires intervention and resource at different levels of government.
Post-pandemic, the UK’s tourism sector can build on recent experience which put domestic tourism in the spotlight. With a new vision and ambition for our culture and our communities, it can be an opportunity for revival.
This blog is part of our series, Holidays and Hope. Read more about the project here.
Image credit: Greg Wilson/Unsplash