You’d probably expect any MP representing a seaside town to be keen on tourism. It’s usually the lifeblood of the local economy and, even though ‘abroad’ has undoubted charms, UK destinations are suddenly cool again. The Olympics and Paralympics are still bathing us all in a warm, worldwide glow, so we’ve got a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost our tourism industry which we can’t afford to miss.
But the Olympics aren’t the only reason to care about tourism. It’s an industry like no other, with a potential to drive growth and jobs which never ceases to amaze me. It can offer international careers in big corporations; or the chance to get rich working for yourself in a local startup; or anything in between. And not just in seaside towns either. If you include business visitors to our cities, plus all the conference and sporting events, pretty much every MP should care about the tourism industry. On average, each constituency has 2,000 people employed in the sector.
It’s our fifth largest industry, and our third largest foreign exchange earner. In the two years from 2009 to 2011, tourism created 60,000 net new jobs, while the rest of the UK only added another 120,000 over the same period. Yes, you heard right: tourism accounted for a third of all new employment in the UK.
More recently, the good news is that 2012 was another bumper year for Britain. Our vibrant cities, exciting destinations, and picturesque landscapes alongside our cultural traditions and quirky humour were irresistible for potential tourists the world over.
In my two and a bit years as Tourism Minister, the profile of the sector as a generator of wealth and jobs rose steadily. The new Government Tourism Policy, backed by both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, gave us a direction and a framework. And more than £150 million jointly invested by Government and the private sector in various marketing campaigns (remember Stephen Fry, Rupert Grint and co urging you not to go abroad?) helped kick-start progress towards delivering them.
Now, as the Olympic caravan vanishes into the sunset on its way to Rio, we’ve got to deliver on all that potential. We’ve got to make sure the tourism legacy is every bit as big and important as the ones in athletics, or in regenerating London’s East End.
Fortunately, a lot of Britain’s tourism product is first-rate. Yes, we need to be miles stronger outside London, and to keep investing in new all-weather attractions too. And we’ve got to show the world that, contrary to myth, ‘foggy London town’ actually has less rain than Rome; that our food is world class nowadays, in spite of what the French or Italians might tell you; and that we Brits are a pretty friendly bunch (thank you to all those Olympic volunteers). But dynamism and creativity have never been in short supply in the UK’s travel and tourism industry, whether it’s for inbound, outbound or domestic holidays, so I’m pretty optimistic we can make progress in all these areas.
The one that worries me most is our productivity. Our competitiveness, if you like. Partly because lots of other countries have understood the potential of tourism, so there are plenty of challengers ready to overtake us if we were ever to drop the collective tourism ball. But mainly because Britain is a developed nation with higher prices than, say, Thailand. So delivering value for money is hard. Not impossible, of course; just difficult. It means all our management and staff need better skills than in other countries, and the quality of what we offer has to be higher too, to make visitors feel like they’re still getting a great deal.
So: better skills, higher productivity, cutting costs where we can by getting rid of red tape, creative marketing. They’re easy things to say, but hard to deliver. Government can’t – and probably shouldn’t – do it all; it’s got to be a partnership of equals with the industry itself. We’ve made a pretty good start and, given tourism’s potential, I’m pretty certain we aren’t about to take our collective foot off the accelerator either. Perhaps the town motto of Weston-super-Mare, a tourism destination to the marrow of its bones, applies to whole of the UK here: ‘Ever Forward’.
Originally posted on Politics Home on 28/02/2013.