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We should mean business when we talk about tourism


SUMMER has arrived big time and we're all looking for places to go and things to do. It's also time to grumble quietly among ourselves about how what's on offer locally is looking a bit tired. But whose fault is that?

It may sound like a statement of the blindingly obvious but tourism is a business just like any other. It depends on turnover, cash flow and investment. Visitor and attraction industries in the Swansea Bay region are estimated to bring in over £600 million a year to the area.

Yet we persistently seem to treat tourism like a bolt-on part of the economy.

Over the years, local authorities and the Welsh Government have jointly produced impressive tourism strategies. If you can get through some of the jargon about "creating a density locus" some parts make good commercial sense.

The reality on the ground is different. Investment is patchy, with funding going into bigger headline projects often at the expense of smaller operations, many of which are actually capable of providing a lot more bang for the tourism buck.

One reason for this imbalance is that the public sector has a lot more expertise, and consequently more success, in attracting grant aid.

The brand new visitor centre at Oystermouth Castle is an exceptional achievement that provides a means of safeguarding and promoting an important part of our heritage. This is financed by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. Yet the restoration of nearby Mumbles Pier — a major attraction in its own right — is going ahead without a penny from the public purse.

The joint scheme created between the pier owners and the RNLI is already transforming the Victorian structure. The project has attracted widespread interest. This is not just because of the scale of the work entailed but the method of using foreshore land sale proceeds to finance a regeneration scheme.

Recycling resources to create sustainable investment capital could well become the norm for some in the visitor industry as austerity measures eat into public sector funding budgets.

For the majority of tourism operators in the region, however, the prospects are much harder. The majority are small enterprises with part-time or casual workforces. In the past, the absence of in-house finance skills was made up by advice and support provided by the former Wales Tourist Board.

Since its demise, few in the industry are able to cope with formula-based investment where X number of potential new jobs equates to Y number of grant support or nothing. Borrowing is also a tough prospect. The seasonal nature of tourism makes cash projections as predictable as the Welsh weather.

In the end it often comes down to the stamina of people like Geoff and Anne Hayden, who persisted in their ambitions for Clyne Farm and Dylan Thomas's home in Cwmdonkin Drive. Yet does it make sense that they are the exception rather than the rule at a time when we're told of the need for more entrepreneurs.

The Swansea Bay region can currently hold its own among comparable UK locations. The recent National Air Show is evidence enough in that respect. Showpiece venues such as Margam Park, the Waterfront Museum and Liberty Stadium are all part of the same ethos of public sector boosting the visitor economy.

Yet my fear is that as pressure builds on frontline services like education and social services, then further cutbacks will have to be made on discretionary budgets such as tourism. These challenges will be felt just at the time that the Swansea Bay region is hoping to be the UK City of Culture in 2017.

It could be a tough call, but it will also be an opportunity to show that we mean business when we talk about tourism.

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