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We should mean business when we talk about tourism

“What amazes me is that while domestic tourism generates millions in local revenue we persistently treat this sector like a cottage industry that’s somehow bolted-on to the economy.”

I wrote those words eight years ago in this very column. Clearly not much changes.

Public bodies offering oversight and strategy for tourism have come and gone. Initiatives that promised to give coastal towns a renaissance fizzled out with the end-of-season fireworks.

And yet it’s taken a “holiday at home” phenomenon, prompted by a pandemic, to finally reinforce recognition of just how badly supported tourism has been over the last few decades.

As I pointed out at the time, there’s nothing particularly special about tourism.

It’s much like any other enterprise. In terms of markets, it can be niche or mainstream. It can cater for the budget end of the market or target higher-income punters.

It relies on decent level of sustained turnover during the busy season and a loyal repeat clientele when things are quieter.

Fixed costs need to be manageable as money is always needed to counter wear and tear. It’s a business where appearances are everything.

But right now, the industry needs some state backing where it matters. Instead of the “vision thing”, quite a few operators would appreciate a government that will assist modest borrowing opportunities plus a few specific grants.

More than anything however, it means dumping the Cinderella status as a business sector.

During lockdown, it seemed that tourism was perpetually last on the list when it came to the re-opening decisions made by all four home-governments.

That came as no surprise but after a year of furloughs and false starts, did ministers urging staycation really expect that there would be anything like the capacity needed to cater for demand?

Around fifty years ago, a guy called Freddie Laker loosened the grip of a captive home holiday market. He came up with the idea of low-cost flights and packaged foreign hotel accommodation. A new business was born and Bognor soon gave way to Benidorm as the favoured fortnight’s destination.

There’s a feeling that the UK-based sector has never quite recovered. Then again, the same industry brings in over 40 million foreign visitors a year, who spend £106 billion while here. Or, at least, they did.

Of course, the weather is a huge factor in choosing a home destination and while it’s taken a global pandemic to shift perspective, it’s very early days before any trend emerges as to whether the timeshare in Kos is going to be replaced by a second home in Keswick

The feeling in the industry is that we fickle punters will stick around on these shores only until it’s safe to head back to foreign beaches in droves.

The boss of Ryanair says he’s expecting a "very strong recovery" in European short-haul flights. The lucrative cruise business is also about to bring more sailings onto their brochures.

“Red lists” and Brexit-related travel woes notwithstanding, the signs are that things will return to the days of travel broadening the mind. Sadly, we’re unlikely to see anything equally positive with regards to how the industry is supported at home.

Like I said, not much changes.




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