Tourism and economic development in the UK, and in local economic and regeneration strategies

I was originally commissioned to write this for ‘Hidden Britain’ a few years ago, but thought it worth repeating here.

Tourism is a major part of the UK’s economy. It contributes £115 billion to the UK’s GDP and provides employment for 2.6 million people, around 9% of the total of each respective measure; 1 in 12 jobs in the UK is either directly or indirectly supported by tourism; with 44% of people employed in tourism aged under 30 compared with an average for the wider economy of 24%. International tourism is the UK’s third-highest earner of foreign exchange and contributed £3.2 billion to the UK in direct taxes in 2012. The UK’s 31 million visitors from overseas spend £18.6 billion a year, and by 2020 the UK could attract 40 million overseas visitors a year, earning the UK £32 billion (all of the above from ‘Delivering a Golden Legacy’ by Visit Britain, 2013).

So, in economic terms tourism is important. Therefore it isn’t surprising that tourism appears as part of the economic, regeneration and growth strategies of many bodies. It is part of the Government’s economic strategy and is outlined in Visit Britain’s UK Tourism Strategy ‘Delivering a Golden Legacy’. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport says “Tourism is central to our commitment to deliver economic growth”.

Tourism was included, as part of a Cultural Strategy, in the Delivery Plan which I wrote for the growth of Ashford under the Sustainable Communities Plan. To quote a section in this Delivery Plan: “Cultural facilities and activities are drivers of prosperity and social cohesion, and culture is what makes places distinctive and memorable. It is essential that Ashford becomes an attractive and inspiring regional cultural centre where people choose to live and visit and where business choose to locate”. This is talking about ‘Culture’ rather than ‘Tourism’ but in reality the two go together. Why would anyone visit you as a tourist if there were no culture or cultural facilities of some sort?

The definition of ‘Culture’ in this Delivery Plan, for Ashford’s Future, was based on that set out in the Regional Cultural Strategy by Culture South East (a body closed down in 2009), which includes visual arts and music; the performing arts; crafts; museums; libraries and archives; sport; tourism, and the historic environment as well as creative industries such as advertising; architecture; design; publishing; television and radio; film and video; software and computer services, and antiques. It also encompasses shared memory, experiences and identity, and ranges from excellence to more inclusive participation. Again, this is much wider than tourism, but these are the things which make people choose a place as their destination and thus become tourists. It is also what helps people choose to live and work in a place and helps to make a full-life for locals.

In addition the success of tourism can help to form and reinforce a place’s image. Visitors who have a good time and are impressed by what they see, do and experience in the UK and specific parts of the UK will be more inclined to revisit, study, move their business, do business, invest, and even settle in these places.

As Visit Britain says “Growth in tourism in Britain would also benefit the UK’s image overseas and in turn enhances soft power. A country’s tourism offer is an important part of the image building of that country. And Britain’s image influences not just whether people come for a weeks holiday, but whether they chose to invest in British companies or relocate their families and their businesses here”.

But we must note that, apart from London, the most important part of the value of overnight tourism income is from domestic overnight trips rather than inbound visitors: with The Rest of England it being approximately 75% of the total value. If we add day trips, domestic tourism is a hugely important part of the tourism and cultural economy.

Income from tourists and visitors can also make it possible for places to have infrastructure and facilities which the local population could not otherwise support or justify on its own: for example airports, hotels, shops, theatres, restaurants etc. Some heritage buildings depend on income from visitors to contribute to their repair and maintenance, although only rarely does the income cover all of the necessary costs, but visitor income does make a valuable contribution.

So, tourism is an important part of the UK’s economy and ought to be part of any economic, growth and regeneration strategy and programme. However, we must be careful not to take an unbalanced view when working up these strategies and programmes, whether at a national or local level. And we shouldn’t pin all of our hopes on just a tourism strategy or a big visitor attraction.

With the advent of post-industrialisation and the changes to local economies which that has brought, many places have seen the potential of culture and tourism to help their areas, using arts and culture as part of a regeneration strategy. The past 15 years or so, with the advent of National Lottery Funding via the Arts Council, The Heritage Lottery Fund and The Millennium Commission, has seen the provision of many new arts, cultural and visitor centres as well as enlarged and improved museums and parks. For example, The Eden Project, The Lowry, The Cardiff Millennium Centre; The Baltic in Gateshead, and more recently Turner Contemporary in Margate and The Hepworth in Wakefield. The early projects have certainly seen their neighbouring areas improve and be regenerated, and this has led many people to claim that arts and culture can work miracles and that all of an area’s problems can be solved by building a museum, art gallery or theatre. More recently some people have begun to question whether arts and culture can really be responsible for regeneration, and even if they do, have we reached saturation point? And, it must be understood that the majority of visitor attractions do not actually make a profit.

In reality, of course, no one thing can solve all of an area’s problems but I think it is fair to point to many of these projects and claim that they have had a positive effect, and have acted as a catalyst for the general improvement of an area, its economy, and changed its image.

Some have failed, for example The Centre for Pop Music in Sheffield, but I think it is possible to identify an aspect of why the successful have been successful. Building a new venue for the arts and culture isn’t enough. It must not be insular and must not be seen in isolation. In addition to linking with its physical hinterland and so assisting with place-making, such projects need to offer opportunities to other businesses via its supply chain; to have a programme of events, a series of ‘happenings’, to reach out and spread from the building into the local area and community. This is exactly what Turner Contemporary in Margate has done and is doing – it has an extensive programme of masterclasses; creative workshops with artists and storytellers; courses and education; events, and out-reach programmes so that it touches people who may not consider that art or culture is for them, and gives opportunities for other artists to put on ‘fringe’ events. It is this, as well as the building, which helps turn around an area’s image and morale, and makes the world think that its best days may be ahead of it rather than in the past. As Mr Punch would say ‘What’s the Way to do it!’. Well, part of it anyway.

But a tourism, cultural and arts strategy doesn’t only have to be about buildings. If an area with a vision for regeneration doesn’t have the money for a gallery or theatre it can still put on events with the town as its open-air gallery. Existing spaces, buildings and sites can be used – including those which are currently empty and disused (and temporary, or ‘pop-up’, use should be an explicit strategy). Indeed establishing an events programme is a good way of flushing out those local councillors who are obsessed with building a gallery or theatre (which are often not self sustaining financially, and require a subsidy from someone – often the local authority); and getting them to commit to fund a season of open air events is a good way of finding out if they really will put their tax payers’ money where their mouth is.

In any event, I say that events and facilities for tourists should not only be about tourists from outside of the area in question. We ought to be planning places and providing facilities for the local population as the first priority and the good quality place you create will then be providing many of the things which draw in tourists. In many ways tourists want the same things which locals want and need – a safe and attractive environment, with things to do (formal and informal, paid for and free). However, it must be noted that attracting too many tourists can make life unpleasant for the local community – there have been protests in Barcelona that mass tourism is ruining the city for the locals.

Even if you can afford a big shiny new building, or someone from the private sector comes forward with proposals for a big project, care needs to be taken in embracing these with open arms and without question. Often big projects are sold to the community and local politicians on the basis of the wider economic and community benefits, but in many cases the project’s business plan only works if the vast majority of the visitor spend and economic benefits are kept within the boundaries of the site.

Therefore a large new visitor attraction may not actually, or automatically, help in the regeneration of an area outside of the project boundaries. In these circumstances some may argue that the wider economic benefits of having some jobs are still worthwhile and so they support the big project (sometimes with some tax-payer grant or subsidy), but they ought to be examining what sort of jobs are being offered: how many are low paid jobs which are dependent of tax-payer subsidy in the form of tax-credits and housing benefits; are there currently enough unemployed locally to fill these low-paid positions or will they have to be imported from outside of the areas and, in which case, where are these people going to live, and will more homes have to be built to house them; how will these homes be funded, and is there funding to pay the housing benefits? There is evidence that lots of lowish paid jobs discourage ambition in local people – ‘why try too hard, I can always work in the casino if all else fails?’ Hardly the sort of thing we want when the country has to upgrade its skills, education and its income levels.

The Eden Project, (whose development and delivery I oversaw for its biggest funder, The Millennium Commission), was very careful to pay above the local going-rate for tourism type jobs; support local businesses; make as many jobs as possible permanent and full time; provide high quality training delivering transferable skills, and target recruitment at hard to reach and hard to help people. The Eden Project had its own economic ambitions and policies which went outside of its physical and business plan boundaries – it saw itself as a regeneration project not just a development scheme.

Some commentators have pointed out the importance of the ‘Cultural Classes’ in providing economic growth in a post-industrial age, and many places have developed a Cultural Strategy as a part of an overall place-making and economic strategy and in order to attract tourists. But there has been criticisms of the Cultural Class theory of regeneration. Some have argued, and I agree with them, that culture should not only be for the cultural classes but be for everyone – there should be high culture and low culture – you should be experiencing culture at times without knowing you are doing so. Culture is for everyone (or it should be), and culture should be everywhere not restricted to specific areas. Culture is the icing on the cake but it is not the cake. As others have said – if you have to put up a sign which says ‘Cultural Quarter’ you have missed the point and in all likelihood you don’t actually have one.

I haven’t tried to offer here a full-scale and detailed dissertation on, or critique of, the tourism and cultural industries: it is too big a subject, with too many aspects to attempt that in a blog. But I can say in conclusion that tourism is an important part of the UK’s economy so should be a part of any economic, regeneration and growth strategy. But tourism must not be used as the sole strategy: it must be part of an integrated whole, and it must build on what the local community need to make their life better and more fulfilling. It must be inclusive of the local community, and like any regeneration, economic and growth strategy must be place specific, building on the history, circumstances and strengths of each place under consideration.

Finally, I want to say that I am concerned about the low wage and low skills aspects of the tourism industry which characterise some types of tourism and culture sector jobs. We must be careful not to go far down this road but to select the type of tourism we support in a balanced way; understanding why we are supporting or promoting it, the benefits it brings and how they are distributed. Is there really any point to a tourism strategy, or large project, which relies on lots of low wage jobs to make a business plan work? – I have seen, especially in London, overseas tourists served by overseas labour, employed by companies owned by overseas investors and wonder ‘is London getting enough out of this?’

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