Why doesn’t Wales do better?

By | Category: Travel rumblings
the dragon doesn't seem to be as fiery in attracting visitors

the dragon doesn’t seem to be as fiery in attracting visitors

Last year, 34 million overseas travellers and holidaymakers visited the UK bringing £21.7 billion to the economy. The majority of that income went to England with Scotland in the first nine months of 2014 attracting £1.5 billion and Wales, a paltry £368 million which is only slightly more than Cambridgeshire receives and half of what Edinburgh generates.

Being voted best country in the world to visit by Rough Guide readers doesn’t seem to have made much impact yet as just 2% of all tourism revenue for the UK comes to Wales.

Of the top 20 places visited by overseas visitors in 2013, Cardiff at twelfth was the only Welsh destination to appear.  And when revenue does come into Wales, it will surprise no-one to learn that 59% of it stays in just two places, Cardiff and Swansea.

Seven weeks ago in Cardiff, there was a morning seminar on how Wales might promote itself and that seminar was the catalyst for Just about Travel to look deeper into why Wales receives fewer visitors than might be expected.

Cardiff Castle. Cardiff attracts about a third of all the overnight stays in Wales

Cardiff Castle. Cardiff attracts about a third of all the overnight stays in Wales

We began by trying to judge how Wales is seen abroad. Not by holidaymakers and travellers but by journalists and travel writers. Why? Because these are the people that are going to be promoting brand Wales and if they don’t have a clear image then why spend money until that is addressed?

Consequently we chose to speak to Irish journalists and writers because they are the nearest “overseas” neighbours and because of the ferry and air links to Wales. The other group we chose to contact is American writers because the US is an important market for UK tourism and Americans generally spend more money than the visitors of many other countries.

Overall from conversations with over 50 – albeit randomly picked US and Irish writers and journalists – the view is that Wales is hardly seen above the parapet. UK/England was the most recognisable brand name with Scotland and Ireland receiving much more recognition. Wales is an also-ran. Of those that I asked they couldn’t generally name one celebrity born in Wales until prompted. Sorry Tom Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael Sheen, Anthony Hopkins, Christian Bale. Older writers came up with Richard Burton and he has been dead for thirty years!

Mile after mile os sand and views , Rhossili Beach, Gower

Mile after mile os sand and views , Rhossili Beach, Gower

Of those who had been to or written about Wales, they emphasised the rugged countryside and beauty. When we mentioned seals and dolphins in Cardigan Bay and off the Pembrokeshire coast they were surprised. When we mentioned castles, food tourism, heritage links, language and culture such as the eisteddfod and the fact that Welsh was still used widely in church services in parts of upper New York state as late as the 1940’s, they were surprised as they were when we said that seven US presidents had Welsh backgrounds and a potential future one – Hillary Clinton – also had Welsh ancestry.

Only one writer, Peter Greenberg – the travel editor of CBS News and greatly assisted by Visit Wales – regularly visited Wales and he, each November, has a radio programme which is put together based in his visit into Cardiff and then out into other parts of our country.

Most of the US writers knew next to nothing with only three having visited the country despite the fact that some wrote for very influential newspapers in San Francisco, New York and Boston. More than half thought Wales was part of England but this should surprise few. That travel journalists professed this was more intriguing. And concerning.

Conwy Castle in North Wales - one of the finest Norman castles anywhere

Conwy Castle in North Wales – one of the finest Norman castles anywhere

The Irish were surprising as well. Two very senior contracts people for Irish travel companies had never visited Wales at all. Some journalists pointed to the St David’s Day briefing in Dublin this year –to which they were all invited – only to be surprised that, at this flagship event about Wales, not one single travel agent or tour operator who could sell holidays and trips to Wales had attended suggesting that not one had to be invited. Shouldn’t events like this always look to the commercial opportunities as well? Is it any wonder that Wales is under the radar.

If journalists and writers believe this, what of visitors from outside the UK? How do they see Wales once they have visited us? Our survey in late April and May of this year was unscientific and limited to a group from Australia and New Zealand. Why them? Because they had come to the UK for a longer period than many travellers would and thus had had time to spend more than one day in Wales. Comments started about the poor transport links once they had left the southern M4 strip or the A55. Mid Wales took time to visit, was preferred by some but touring had to be curtailed because of the time and quality of the road network. Trains weren’t an option because of slowness or inaccessibility meaning that a car would still need to be hired so why bother with a train in the first place.

Lake Bala where water sports and trekking attract visitors

Lake Bala where water sports and trekking attract visitors

Signposting was an issue with outdated directions to tourist information centres, information centres that closed for lunch and weren’t open at weekends and staff who were more concerned with selling souvenirs that suggesting accommodation. One visitor from NSW referred to signs to a tourist information centre only to be told on arrival that it ceased to be one eleven years ago! Since that visit a Ceredigion councillor has also voiced concern about out-of-date signs as well, independently of our investigation. The suggestion is then that we have some groundwork to do before trumpeting Welsh benefits to the world.

To get people to come means connectivity. It will come as no surprise to many readers that outside the south east conclave, there is a belief amongst some that the rest of Wales is fed cash morsels rather than cash food. Or that if there are no Labour voters because Labour has dominated Welsh politics for generations, then tourist concerns should work with non- governmental or quasi- governmental bodies for assistance like the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Cardiff Airport – there is only that matters really one since the London service from Swansea disappeared many moons ago – has undergone considerable change not helped by the fact that few airlines schedule flights from there. It doesn’t require anyone to tell the airport or the government as the airport’s paymaster that a direct route to a US destination that clamours for a UK link like New Orleans for example or Myrtle Beach or Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania would be ideal for a “Visit your Welsh heritage” promotion) would increase tourism. As readers know, the crunch is persuading an airline to provide services. The traditional algorithm for a routes success was turned upside down by Ryanair’s arrival with 99p fares to under-used airports. That logic that Ryanair re-wrote still applies today.

Why isn't Cardiff used more by people living in the CF postcode area? Image -  Richard Swingler. Media Wales

Why isn’t Cardiff used more by people living in the CF postcode area?
Image – Richard Swingler. Media Wales

We undertook a study of 446,479 leisure flyers living in the CF, NP and SA postcodes, ie all geographies in the south east and south west of Wales who have travelled outside of the UK by air in the last two years who would be expected to use Cardiff for their flights. Just 278,192 did or 62%. The remainder chose Bristol, Gatwick and Birmingham in that order. We know – and if we do, surely governments, airports and airlines must be able to find out as well- where these people went and therefore can base future city pair promotions and plans on what demand has been.

Enough negativity.

On a positive and bizarre note, such a lack of knowledge about Wales means that tourism almost has a blank sheet of paper as to how to attract non Welsh visitors.

What do other countries do? Two of the most successful seem to be Ireland and the USA via Tourism Ireland and Brand America. Both start from a greater sense of awareness amongst the international travel community so, once an approach has been decided, it needs a bang rather than a whimper to get the ball rolling.

the Henrhyd Falls in Powys

the Henrhyd Falls in Powys

In the USA, Peter Greenberg will be fronting a 56 part series about America using celebrities to act as travel guide in each of the states, territories and districts of the US. Andy McDowell s the travel guide for South Carolina and Harry Connick jnr for Louisiana are two of the first guides. The series, supported by Brand America will be shown around the world and negotiations are under way for it to be shown over here. It may run as a stand-alone series or as sponsored television. New York has Taylor Swift singing the praises of the city as she opens every concert she gives with “Welocme to New York.”

Celebrity endorsement sells; where are the Welsh?

Ireland on the other hand is concentrating on its outdoors and seems to have been very successful given the increased number of tourists which it has attracted this year some of whom will have headed to Welsh ferry ports without bothering to stop and see the Wales on the way. As one Irish journalist from a national newspaper put it to me, “Wales is the road I have to use to get to England.” It almost makes you want to emulate the chief of staff of the New Jersey governor who closed a main bridge into New York City thus delaying people getting there. That was done for political reasons; in Wales it could be done for tourism! And Wales has two bridges it could close!

near Marloes in pembrokeshire where probably over 700 seals will pup this autumn.

near Marloes in Pembrokeshire where probably over 700 seals will pup this autumn.

A few years ago, the Australian state of Queensland advertised on social media for an island warden who would record his life whilst there and broadcast it to followers. The story was picked up by mainstream media and tens of thousands of people applied whilst tens of millions of people had heard of this tourism promotion. Where has been the equivalent in Wales?

After all these comments it ill-befits me, as editor, to complain and suggest without doing something tangible myself. I have invited – and he has accepted – a journalist from a US Chinese language, travel publication to stay with me before the World Travel Market this November and I will show him part of Wales. I have also invited a member of the Texan travel PR community and his wife to stay with me and I’ll show them the sights as well. PR people are tremendous gossipers and, as you all know, only speak in superlatives.

If Visit Wales have any influence with the man above and the weather holds, the seals pup, the castles aren’t muddy. the mists don’t set in and the dolphins bask, both visitors will return home with a better knowledge of Wales.

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