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A little over a week ago we published a new strategy for tourism.
Policy, Blueprint, Action Plan - you can call it what you like, but the important thing is that it is significantly different to any equivalent document about tourism that any UK Government has issued before. And the reason it’s different is that, this time, it’s not just warm words and sound-bites - a pound of fluff and spin for every ounce of firm commitment - it’s trying to turn some of our basic preconceptions on their heads.
Yes, there are the headline-grabbing bells and whistles: plans to start a public debate about moving the May Day bank holiday, make tourist road signs more user-friendly and even to make a virtue - in marketing terms - of our climate and weather.
But the real meat and potatoes (as they say in the States) is to be found below the eye-catching stuff.
That’s because we want - and I feel I almost have to whisper this, because for some this may sound like Orwellian thought-crime - to put the customer first. Heresy, I know. But that really is what our tourism policy aims to do.
Let me explain.
When people decide to go on holiday with their friends or families, they’re very often committing to spending a great deal of money. For families, indeed, it may be the one time in the year when everyone gets together in what they hope will be happy and relaxed circumstances.
To put it bluntly - people go on holiday to have a good time, and they’re prepared to pay a lot, and take a lot of trouble, to get it right.
So how, traditionally, has Government responded to this rather important - and obvious - requirement?
Well, it has:
Created over the years a system of regional tourism bodies, based on local authority or administrative boundaries rather than anywhere a customer would actually expect a visit on holiday;
Created a Government run system of rating hotels, campsites and B&Bs with a mysterious one-size-fits-all system where - to no one’s great surprise - around half of those eligible to be rated, prefer to pass, and
Divided up the vital jobs of promoting Britain abroad between multiple different bureaucracy, creating a confusing, imprecise and inconsistent image of our single most important brand in the minds of our customers.
But many of these approaches are as daft and dated as the red faced old chap, asleep in a deckchair with a knotted handkerchief on his head, that was our image of holidaymaking fifty or more years ago.
These days, people go to particular places - destinations, as we call them these days - not ‘regions’ for their holidays. They think nothing of moving around, having a week walking in the lakes then driving down to the Gower to take it easy for a few days.
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For some, wheelchair access to the holiday venue for just one member of the party will be a deciding factor, or the carbon footprint of the place, or any other quirky thing that ‘the Government Inspector’ can’t capture on his clipboard, but means a lot to some guests. So we will put the industry back in charge of the rating system, rather than expecting bureaucrats - however clever and well intentioned - to know better than business people whose job depends on getting it right. After all, we don’t have Government run ratings systems for cars or cornflakes, so why should holidays be any different?
And putting the emphasis back on to the customer - turning the tourist model on its head - doesn’t just apply to holidaymakers. For us in Government, tourist businesses are our customers too. They pay taxes to the Exchequer - and they leave us in no doubt of that, I can tell you - and are perfectly entitled to expect a proper say in our policy making and decisions.
These businesses come in all shapes and sizes. Many are small and more prone than most to founder when the economy suffers, and that’s why we are very deliberately giving them a bigger stake - and a stronger voice - in the promotion of their local market. Small and medium sized businesses can feel lost in the region-wide administrations that are purportedly their representatives.
So we’re out to create strong, sustainable and independent local tourism boards. Forums where it’s clearly in the interest of stakeholders large and small to get involved, because there becomes a direct relationship between what members put in and what they get out. Tourism bodies whose zones of interest and influence are defined by a genuine sense of place, not an arbitrary line on an electoral boundary map. Local decisions taken locally by those best-placed to take them: local businesses in majority partnership with public bodies, and the absolute bare minimum of high-level interference.
We want a new way of doing things. Bottom-up, and customer focused, with strong independent local bodies. An internationally-focused organisation - VisitBritain - with a targeted £100 million marketing budget to help bring people here from overseas, national bodies to take care of issues directly involving the individual countries within the UK, and a host of small and sharply-focused Destination Marketing Organisations.
Let me finish as I started. Yes, the media have written thousands of words about whether we should put the clocks forward as part of this strategy. I hope and believe that, as a result of this new policy we will be putting the clocks forward for the UK tourism industry - by 20 or 30 years, if we possibly can.
The next two years see an amazing coming together of events and circumstances that will put the UK in the spotlight as never before. It will be a fantastic opportunity for the tourism industry, and one that I know they will grab with both hands. Our strategy will make this easier for them to do so, and I commend it to you.