Tourism Policy in the UK – do we really need one?

Despite writing and teaching about tourism policy, I do sometimes wonder about whether we need tourism policy at all, at least in the UK.

The classical arguments for why we need tourism policy are fairly convincing: The industry is incredibly complex and fragmented and benefits from structure and leadership; The environmental impacts of tourism require management; Tourism, left unchecked, can have severe social consequences in destinations; The high growth potential of tourism means that governments would be wise to support and nurture it and, most frequently, tourism suffers from the problem of market failure.

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There are at least two questions worth asking in response to all of this.  Firstly, do all of these arguments really carry weight in the UK?  Secondly, what would happen if we didn’t have a tourism policy?

The complexity of tourism was described perfectly by Bob McKercher in the first issue of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism in 1993: “Tourism is a multi-faceted industry and, as such, it is almost impossible to control”. This is certainly true, but begs the question of why we need to control tourism at all.  In the UK, with a strong and stable government, the tourism industry is regulated and monitored through a range of legislative measure, guidelines, NGOs, partnerships and communities.  Concerns about the control of tourism are caused by the bogey-man of tourism businesses running out of control and seeking profit at the expense of everyone else, but it is very hard for anyone to do that in the UK without running up against some pretty big obstacles, none of which are tourism-policy specific.

This first issue of control helps us to understand the arguments about the impacts of tourism.  Clearly, tourism has a range of impacts and some of these can be very negative.  Tourism Policy in the UK, however, doesn’t actually put any limits on the activities of tourism businesses – limits come from more general legislation such as planning and employment law.

As I’ve argued in this article, although previous UK tourism policies did make the case for sustainable development, this has been dropped from the current policy in favour of economic growth, in any case.

The market failure argument is a difficult one to evaluate, especially given the success of the tourism industry in the UK.  Of course, problems of free-riding mean that it is true that non-contributing tourism businesses can benefit from the destination marketing activities funded by their competitors, but most tourism marketing is funded by the public sector, or in partnership with the public sector.  Aside from that example though, it is hard to see real problems of market failure in the UK tourism industry – the industry makes a large contribution to GDP, is dominated by SMEs, offers huge diversity to customers and has low barriers to entry.

Tourism's Contribution to GDP in the UK (Visit Britain)
Tourism’s Contribution to GDP in the UK (Visit Britain)

So what would happen if we didn’t get a new tourism policy in the UK after the general election in 2015?

Let’s assume that Visit Britain would continue in some form.  Despite having its funding slashed in half since 2010 and becoming a public-private partnership in all but name, it has continued to carry out the international destination marketing campaigns that an NTO should.  With reduced government support and, potentially, no government department overseeing it, it would probably be wrapped up with UK Trade and Investment and Higher Education as a PPP with a relationship to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, much as happened when Visit London became part of the new London and Partners, the ‘official promotional company for London’.  International destination marketing would almost certainly carry on as before.

At the local government level, it would become harder to justify support for tourism activities without it being endorsed by a specific government policy area.  But tourism has always been an area of discretionary spending for local government and has already seen huge cuts at this level.  A new breed of Destination Management Organisations is emerging, outside of local authority structures, and it is likely that these private-sector-led bodies would take on destination management and marketing roles, as they already are.

And I don’t think it would make a difference to the day-to-day running of tourism businesses, who spend large amounts of their time grappling with employment law, taxation, health and safety regulations and the like, but very little struggling with the implementation of government tourism policy.   At events over the last few years, I’ve heard tourism business leaders and small businesses arguing for reduced regulation, improved employment legislation and a reduction in VAT.  I haven’t heard anyone calling for an improved tourism policy.

This is the second in a series of posts about UK Tourism Policy in the run up to the 2015 General Election.  You can read the first post here.  Over the next couple of months I’ll be reviewing each of the main parties’ proposals for tourism policy, but I don’t think it is impossible to imagine the UK without one.

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