Wales is “standing still”

By | Category: Travel rumblings

The dragon doesn’t seem to be very fiery if the tourism figures are to be believed

This is the comment made at the weekend by the respected travel editor of the Independent, Simon Calder when appearing on the BBC. He is quoted as saying that it was “really concerning” that visitor spending dropped by 17% at a time when the pound is weak.

His comments came as the Welsh government revised an earlier published report on the state of tourism based on 2017.

This report summarised Welsh tourism as follows;

  • International visitor numbers rose by 0.5% to 1,079,000
  • Spending by international visitors was down 16.9% to £369 million
  • Domestic visitor numbers fell to just under 99,700,000 trips, down 2.5%
  • Spending by domestic visitors rose by 5.8%.
image of Caernarfon Castle

With major attractions such as Caernarfon Castle

The UK, as a whole, saw international tourism rise by 4.3%. In Scotland it rose by 17%, in London by 4% and in the rest of England by 3%.

Why did Wales do so badly? Why didn’t all those visitors to the UK come down to Wales? What is that the rest of our countries have that attracts visitors and Wales does not?

These are all questions that Visit Wales and the Welsh government need to ask themselves.

Unlike Mr Calder, I think that the amount that tourists spend in Wales compared to the rest of the country is of less concern. If you can’t attract visitors in the first place then it doesn’t matter about money. You can concentrate on getting them to spend more once you have them hooked.

The Welsh government is quoted as saying that its tourism barometer survey was “overwhelmingly positive” but surely this is only in the eyes of its spin doctors. Anybody else would view it as pretty dreadful. In any other destination, heads would roll but they can’t in Wales because Visit Wales is an arm of the government and civil service people seem to just get promoted elsewhere. Even the current tourism minister has been in office less than a year so is only now making an impact.

Snowdon

This isn’t the first time that the promotion of tourists By Visit Wales has been criticised – apart from by me of course. Professor Annette Pritchard of Cardiff Metropolitan University has been critical of Wales tourism promotion for some years. In the last few days she has tweeted “Overseas visits/£ very disappointing as Wales continues to suffer from lack of connectivity. Future may be even more uncertain without bite size product development/branding. Doubt £5m spent overseas though as this was UK campaign too.”

The Wales Tourism Alliance – a consortia of tourism bodies in Wales – also called them disappointing but did not comment any further as to why it should be so.

Connectivity is not the whole story thought it may be in part. Unlike many UK airports, Cardiff – although a capital city – has no “business” flights to overseas countries. Largely it supports the leisure market which is predominantly short-haul. It has no flights to any US or Chinese city and the only business hubs that it flies to in Europe are Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. For long-haul connectivity it relies on KLM transfers in Amsterdam, Air France in Paris and most importantly of all, Qatar Airlines in Doha, which connects to direct flights into the Far East and Australasia. In support of that connection, the Welsh government has paid Qatar Airways £1 million to promote Wales. But Akbar Al Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways is reported as saying that the number of passengers on the route is disappointing. It may pick up indeed both the airport and the government will hope that it will otherwise the airline might close, suspend or cut back on the number of flights.

the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

That the airport and the government for the two are intertwined since the government owns the airport, haven’t been able to persuade a US airline of British Airways to launch a US service is a cause for concern given that Americans send more and there are plenty of Americans of Welsh ancestry – now thought to number over two million – who might want to come and visit if only the promotion was right.

Overseas promotion is in the hands of Visit Britain rather than Visit Wales but should that be the case? In such a situation, Welsh AM’s can always blame and hide behind Visit Britain for not encouraging more visitors. How can we assess whether Visit Wales is fit for purpose when it is only responsible for encouraging domestic (ie England, Scotland and Northern Ireland) visitors?

coracle racing

and traditional events like racing coracles on the Teifi

Encouraging more flights would certainly help.  If here was just one extra short haul A320 flying three-quarters full it could bring in 65,000 people throughout the year. Having an airline like Norwegian flying to a largely untapped family destination in the US for British passengers like Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, for example, which would probably appeal to Britons seeking beach holidays linked with nearby sporting leisure facilities of international standards.. But would it attract Americans to fly to Cardiff? It could because there is a higher than average number of Americans with Welsh surnames living in the state.

Connectivity is a double-edged sword. It can bring visitors in but it can also take people abroad who might have settled for domestic holidays.

One of the biggest problems seems to be letting know that Wales exists. Many people abroad know little or nothing about Wales It is still seen as part of England by many North Americans according to some US tour operators to whom I have spoken. Another issue which faces any visitor to Wales be they domestic or international is the ability to move quickly around the country. Unlike elsewhere where better and faster road networks exist, there is little in the way of dual carriageways in mid Wales north of the A40/M4 and south of the A55. Moving visitors around either by road or rail is slow.

why aren’t more visitors coming to wales?

Today more than connectivity is needed and the first starting point for visitors is often the tourist website. That of Visit Wales is uninspiring. It is predominantly in red, black, and severe; official looking in places which is not surprising given that the feel and look is not dissimilar to that of the Welsh government. Compared to some destinations like Barbados, Queensland in Australia, Singapore or California in the USA, it is drab and unappealing.

There is a lot for the Welsh government and Visit Wales to do. Last year according to the World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals grew by 7% in 2017. For Wales to grow by 0.5% is lamentable and there is little evidence that Visit Wales or the Welsh government understands that it has a problem let alone knowing how to solve it.

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