‘Welsh’ Tourism: Game Lost, Or Thrown?

I have always argued that Wales gets the worst of all possible worlds when it comes to tourism. Being a low wage activity, tourism drives down wages in other local industries. Leaving ‘tourism hot-spots’ poor areas where locals Self-cateringhave to compete in a distorted property market with people who liked the area so much as tourists that they want to settle, or buy a holiday home. Finally, the vast numbers of tourists put a massive strain on all manner of services such as hospitals and ambulances, the road network, litter clearance . . . for which we, who get no benefit from tourism, have to pay. Making tourism, for the vast majority of Welsh people, a lose-lose situation. And I haven’t even mentioned the cultural damage and the environmental degradation.

I made some of these points in a letter to the Wasting Mule last month. I argued that Wales could make just as much money from far fewer tourists, while also creating more jobs, if we closed off some of the avenues to holidays on the cheap. My letter was answered in Friday’s issue by ‘Alun Davies’, who gave us a little travelogue on what he claimed was his recent visit to Pembrokeshire. It’s a cleverly written letter that pretends to answer the points I made, but doesn’t. He tells us that Sir Benfro was full of continental visitors, while making no mention of English tourists, before wandering off to discuss, among other things, public lavatories!

The point to be made here is that if tourism is the economic activity we are told, then the priority has to be maximising the profit. Those overseeing tourism in Wales have only known one way of doing this – by increasing the numbers of low-spending tourists from over the border, with all the attendant problems I list above. Worse, I cannot recall anyone involved in tourism ever wondering out loud whether there might be a limit to how many tourists parts of Wales can cope with. Quite amazing that in 2013 sustainability should be such an alien concept.

The reason I bring this up again is that I’ve just run across some fascinating figures on global tourism (click to enlarge) on the BBC website, put out by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. France gets more foreign tourists than any other country on earth, but the spend per head of $646 compares badly with almost all other countries, as the table on the right will show. (For neighbouring Germany, the figure is $1,253.) The explanation suggested by the BBC is given below, and it makes fascinating reading, very relevant to Wales.

Tourism countries
Click to Enlarge

“Some 83% of France’s visitors come from other European countries, which may explain the relatively low amount spent per head. A lot of them come from neighbouring countries and often choose to camp and buy food from supermarkets, rather than filling the coffers of hotel and restaurant owners.”

The BBC website could have added, ‘Coming from neigbouring countries they may even bring food with them rather than buying in French supermarkets, thus further reducing the amount they will spend’. Even without this, what it does make clear is that tourists who are camping – and this includes caravans and other forms of self-catering, including of course, holiday homes – will spend far less per head than tourists staying in hotels, bed and breakfasts and other serviced accommodation. Self-evident, surely? That being so, why is Wales awash with ugly caravan sites? Why do we eulogise over sites like the Bluestone chalets?

There seem to be linked and unavoidable truths at work here. They can be expressed thus, almost as a syllogism:

1/ The further away your tourists come from, the more money they are likely to spend.

2/ To maximise the tourism income a country will keep to the minimum opportunities for low spend, self-catering holidays.

3/ It follows that the most economically beneficial tourists will come from far away and stay in serviced accommodation; they will also hire cars, they will eat in restaurants, they will create employment, etc.

So why is it that what passes for ‘Welsh’ tourism can think no further than Brummies and their caravans on Cardigan Bay? Or Mancs and Scousers on stag nights in Llandudno? Weekend breaks for Londoners in Pembrokeshire? This is not a tourism strategy, this is not any kind of strategy, it is simply a form of surrender, allowing things to continue as they have in the past. Unwelcome, undesirable and indefensible.

Tourism in Wales developed with the spread of the rail network in the nineteenth century to serve England’s needs not Wales’s interests. Over that we had no control. Yet now we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century and the second decade of devolution, surely time we had a tourism industry serving Welsh interests. Not least because the continuing failure to serve Welsh interests will only make more people suspect that attracting millions of English tourists to Wales every year serves an agenda that has little to do with economics.