Saturday, 22 November 2014

Assembly gives Wales mixed Tripadvisor review

On Thursday, the National Assembly's Business & Enterprise Committee launched its wide-ranging  report into the tourism industry (pdf).

The Committee and Assembly staff undertook a series of away days over the summer, visiting new and established tourism businesses to collate their views. This ranged from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Gwynedd, to the National Museum in Cardiff.

The Committee made 28 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should create a stronger tourism brand, coordinating their efforts across relevant government departments (like culture), and doing more to promote Wales' unique selling points.
  • Visit Wales should do more to involve tourism businesses in their marketing programmes.
  • The Welsh Government should "maximise the tourism impact of major events", including :
    • an economic impact assessment of the Newport NATO summit
    • a similar assessment for events surrounding the Dylan Thomas centenary
    • an explanation as to how they intend to continue the work of the (disbanded) Wales Music Foundation following WOMEX 2013
  • The Welsh Government should develop targeted strategies for tourism sectors with significant growth potential.
  • Improving the online presence of Visit Wales, and continuing to work to improve access to high-speed broadband.
  • The Welsh Government should work with Visit Britain to improve Visit Britain's promotion of Wales, and set Visit Britain targets to increase the number of visits to Wales.
  • The Welsh Government should provided details of its £20million "total funding" for tourism so the tourism industry can have a better idea of how it compares to the rest of the UK. EU funding opportunities for tourism should also be maximised.
Because the remit of the inquiry was so broad, by Assembly standards this was a long report, so I'm afraid this is going to be a long post as a result.

Tourism Policy & Funding

Whether in the Senedd chamber or up a mountain, you can
guarantee William Graham will be well turned out.
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)

Tourism is currently worth £6.9billion to the Welsh economy (13.2% of gross value added), supports some 209,000 jobs (making it Wales' third largest employer) and since 2005 it's the fastest-growing sector in Wales. In 2013, the Welsh Government set a target of tourism growing by 10% by 2020, and the Committee say they're well on the way to reaching that goal.

For 2014-15 the Welsh Government set aside £12.8million for tourism marketing, and they've also drawn down £36million in EU funding as part of the Environment for Growth (E4G) scheme. There's also a Tourism Investment Support Scheme (TISS) which provides grants and repayable loans for upgrades to facilities.

Contact between tourism businesses and the Welsh Government used to be via four regional tourism partnerships. However, back in April 2014, Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) announced all Welsh Government support for the partnerships would cease, with the responsibility passing to specialist teams within Visit Wales.

Businesses gave a mixed response to the closure of regional tourism partnerships, with concerns raised that some areas might lose out or lose local expertise, but others believing the partnerships duplicated work.Many respondents were concerned about lack of financial resources to promote tourism, with the Association of Self Catering Accommodation believing current levels of expenditure don't reflect tourism's place in the economy, suggesting marketing budgets need to be closer to £50million. It's said experience has shown them that Wales needs to market first-time tourists (which is often more expensive), as these tend to return.

Others believed Visit Wales were doing a good job with the resources they have, but Westminster spending on tourism elsewhere in the UK made it hard for them to compete.

Deputy Minister for Tourism, Culture & Sport, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), said the Welsh Government's total spending on tourism was £20million, with a marketing budget of around £8million. The lack of details made it hard to compare this with figures from around the UK.

E4G funding has been used for six projects, including the Wales Coastal Path and Valleys Regional Park. Wildlife Trust Wales were critical that EU funds weren't used to enhance biodiversity ("natural capital"), which other EU member states – like the Czech Republic and Greece have done (this becomes relevant later on).

The Committee recommended - following comments from the Arts Council of Wales - tailored EU support for the tourism sector similar to that provided by the Welsh Government's Media Antenna (Does Wales make the most of EU opportunities?).

The Performance of Visit Wales & Visit Britain

Visit Wales' website has been criticised for being too slow to update,
while some businesses are unclear what Visit Wales does.
(Pic :
Visit Wales is the Welsh Government branch with responsibility of tourism promotion. Formerly known as the Wales Tourist Board, its functions were taken on by the Welsh Government as part of the 2006 "Bonfire of the Quangos".

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) say it's currently very hard to determine how well Visit Wales are performing due to a lack of published information – they don't even produce an annual report. Visit Wales' budget isn't reported by the Welsh Government either.

Other witnesses believe there was a "lack of clarity" over what Visit Wales does, though Ken Skates argued that specific tourism actions are on the Welsh Government's website for anyone to see.

Visit Wales' website itself was criticised as hard to navigate and slow to update its business information. Cardiff Metropolitan University's Prof. Annette Pritchard was upfront and described it as "very poor in terms of information."

Visit Britain is the pan-UK tourism quango, funded by the UK's Department for Media, Culture & Sport. Its relationship with Visit Wales is described as "close" and Ken Skates said it's "strengthened significantly in recent times". Visit Wales will soon have a marketing manager seconded to Visit Britain's team in London.

Visit Britain's GREAT campaign is reported to have resulted in a three-fold increase in overnight stays in Wales amongst those influenced by the campaign, however there were complaints that GREAT was too focused on London and South East England. Prof. Pritchard said Visit Britain's priorities changed, becoming more about boosting visits to London at the expense of the rest of the UK instead of previously trying to get people out of London.

In terms of Visit Britain's wider impact on Welsh tourism, people visiting or seeing their campaigns were twice as likely to spend money in Wales, twice as likely to visit Wales and generated around 1,300 press articles during April-September 2013. But international promotion of Wales via Visit Britain was described as "problematic", with Wales "totally absent from Visit Britain's digital content".

Marketing Wales

Prof. Pritchard said the Welsh tourism brand was at a "tipping point" requiring "greater clarity and consumer and media resonance". Some witnesses even went as far as saying the Welsh tourist brand was "non-existent". The FSB were also unconvinced that smaller tourism businesses were engaging with current tourism branding.

The Ashton Group undertook a review of "Brand Wales" for the Welsh Government between 2012-2014, but it seems hardly anybody has seen the results of the final report. Edwina Hart said the report led to immediate changes; but the then Minister for Culture & Sport, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), said he wasn't even aware the review was taking place.

Some tourism businesses criticised the recent £4million Visit Wales advertising campaign (TV ad above), as it didn't promote Wales' unique selling points, but instead a "bland sameness". Some were also disappointed with the lack of engagement from Visit Wales, and the fact only one attraction from north Wales featured.

Others were complimentary, saying it was "setting the right tone", while Prof. Pritchard said it was helping to promote a distinctive Celtic heritage.

Welsh Tourist Assets

Castles and heritage sites are clearly very popular with international tourists.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
According to a 2013 visitors' survey, the main reasons for visits to Wales are :
  • to enjoy the landscape.
  • to visit historical sites and/or specific attractions.
  • to take part in outdoor activities.
Going on a tour of Welsh castles was listed as a "dream activity", while National Parks and the coast were also popular amongst international tourists.

It's felt – from Prof. Pritchard and the FSB - that more had to be done to sell Wales' uniqueness, which includes the Welsh language, industrial heritage and historical sites. Unfortunately, "cultural tourism" is usually associated with cities, and Cardiff isn't considered a "cultural destination" (yet).

Heritage tourism is an area of focus at the moment having received a £19million boost from the Welsh Government between 2009-2015 – overseen by Cadw. Six key heritage sites – Blaenavon Ironworks, Caerphilly, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech castles and St David's Palace – were said to each generate £6.95million for local economies.

St Fagans museum is also undergoing a £25million redevelopment, which is hoped will boost visitor numbers from 600,000 to 850,000 a year by 2021.

Major Events

Gold tourism has been boosted by the 2010 Ryder Cup and
the 2014 Senior Open Championship in Porthcawl.
(Pic :

Wales is said to be developing a niche for both internationally-recognised events and "quirky events" like the Bog Snorkelling Championships. Prof. Pritchard did say, however, that these events weren't filtering through to the Wales "brand".

There was praise for the Major Events Unit – set up by the previous Welsh Government – and Ken Skates said the Welsh Government have made "big strides in building Wales' position in the global events industry". Golf tourism has increased following the 2010 Ryder Cup and Senior Open Championship in Porthcawl this year, the value of which rising by 14% between 2012 and 2013.

However, the situation regarding WOMEX 2013 was picked out for special attention. Despite bringing £3million into the economy, the Wales Music Foundation – which helped to host the event – was disbanded when Welsh Government funding ceased. The Committee were worried the momentum for hosting similar cultural events may have been lost.

Prof. Pritchard was sceptical about the benefits of the NATO summit, saying (before the summit was hosted) that there needed to be a "real Welsh presence....otherwise the media just moves the next place". Ken Skates argued the summit provided a platform for Wales, and Barack Obama's comments would encourage Americans to visit Wales (this isn't 2008, Ken).

Maximising Tourism's Value

Poor international connectivity has - yet again - been flagged up as
something seriously holding back the Welsh economy.
(Pic :
In 2013, Wales accounted for 6% of UK tourism spending but just 2.5% of international spending. In terms of total spending within Wales, almost 90% comes from visitors from the rest of the UK. The harsh fact is the number of overseas tourists has declined for five years – though this has happened in all parts of the UK except London. Respondents therefore agreed that domestic tourism should be the focus as that's our "core market".

In terms of the economy, tourism makes up a larger proportion of Welsh domestic productivity compared to the rest of the UK. To meet the aforementioned Welsh Government targets by 2020, tourism visits have to increase by 1.4% a year – described simultaneously as ambitious, not ambitious enough and in the right ballpark depending on the witness - so it's hard to determine whether the target fits or not.

The FSB underlined the importance of training people to work in the tourism industry, while Llechwedd Slate Caverns said many young people were reluctant to work in tourism as it was associated with seasonal work and limited career prospects.

Several areas were picked out for growth :
  • Nature-based tourism – This is described as "an untapped market" in Wales. Scotland is currently top when it comes to wildlife tourism, but Wildlife Trust Wales said people were currently "unaware of the wildlife wonders Wales offers". To grow this sector it's said investment is needed to improve the whole tourist experience (hence the comment about EU funding earlier).
  • Cruise ships – Again described as "largely untapped", with the Celtic Sea "providing a significant tourism opportunity to Wales" in an area dominated by the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic seas.
  • Activity holidays – This presumably includes things like fishing, hiking, mountaineering and mountain biking. Conwy Council said more more needed to be done to promote "the adrenaline side of the outdoors". Llechwedd Slate Caverns said fishing was worth £150million to the Welsh economy, but doesn't feature on tourism marketing.
  • Faith-based tourism – Churches, monasteries and cathedrals draw tourists, but it wasn't believed it was receiving the support it deserves.

In terms of barriers to tourism growth, two areas were picked out :
  • Transport and connectivity – There were calls for "smooth transportation" to get people out of London. Cardiff Airport was singled out for improvement by witnesses, as well as improvements to internal connectivity, while it's said more needs to be done to promote connectivity between north Wales and Manchester Airport. Signposting (literally meaning those brown and white road signs) was also picked out as an under-reported issue in tourism, as the process to get a brown sign was often bureaucratic.
  • Mobile & broadband signals – This doesn't just affect tourists, obviously. Some businesses went as far as spending £20,000 on leased lines to improve broadband connectivity. WiFi and mobile phone networks continue to be unreliable, and it's often the areas strongest for tourism which were weakest for signals. The Welsh Government are rolling out the Superfast Cymru scheme, and Ken Skates said he expects up to 98% of the population to have access to 4G by the end of the decade.

Tourism : Is it really the future?

Attractions like Bounce Below at Llechwedd Slate Caverns are innovative,
but is tourism enough to build an economy in the long-term?
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)
Many of the conclusions in this inquiry are very similar to previous inquiries : a weak "Brand Wales", lack of co-ordination between Welsh Government departments, poor infrastructure, not being well-served by pan-UK organisations and, yet again, some curt (perhaps unpopular) decision-making by Edwina Hart.

All these things are becoming running themes and trends to the point that if you bundle the committee inquiries together, it should be more obvious what the problems are in terms of delivering the Welsh Government's economic policies. You can probably boil everything down to communication problems - both from/within the Welsh Government and between Welsh Government and industry generally.

The Committee's recommendations seem to be common sense though, and it's clear that while Wales could be doing significantly better here we're not doing too badly either. So why are there still doubts in my mind as to whether tourism is a good thing to underpin our economy?

Firstly, the jobs really are seasonal and sometimes over-reliant on our unreliable climate. A good summer's results can be wiped out by a bad one.

Secondly, you can reach Wales in hours from the rest of the UK, so it's overseas tourists who are – logically – the big spenders on a per head basis. Limiting tourism promotion to just the UK, even if it's the core market, seems slightly self-defeating.

My other concern would be the lack of quality destinations in Wales and the lack of high quality accommodation. Having loads of two and three-star bed and breakfasts and seaside hotels is all well and good, but we need the four and five star hotels and resorts too.

A five star mountain bike resort would be something that would work to Wales' strengths, and although there were/are plans for something like that in the Afan Valley it never came to pass. Likewise, there are other blind spots in Wales, like the lack of major theme parks (Oakwood is tiddly compared to Alton Towers et al.), zoos/wildlife parks, Michelin-starred restaurants and big indoor leisure facilities (like aqua parks).

So there are huge challenges to overcome if tourism is going to seriously challenge the likes of manufacturing and financial services in terms of economic importance and long-term growth. Despite tourism's importance, Wales has to have "something else" on top, and we can't fall into the trap of putting more eggs in fewer baskets and, at some point down the line, creating 21st Century Rhyls.


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