Backing the Tourism Sector? The UK Government’s new tourism policy

Posted on September 28, 2015

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The UK Government recently published their new ‘five point plan’ for the tourism industry.  You can download it from here.  In this post, I’m going to have a critical look at this new policy, which actually contains very little policy at all…

As Kurt Janson, the policy director of Tourism Alliance, has pointed out, it is a good sign for the sector that the Government is at least talking about tourism as a policy area in a time of public sector spending cuts.  Despite the rumours that were circulating before the recent election about further cuts to public support for tourism and the gloomy future for the Department for Culture Media and Sport (where tourism sits in government policy), it seems as though this Government is continuing to say the right kinds of things about the UK tourism industry, which contributes around £60bn a year to the economy.

Click on the image to read the policy in full

Click on the image to read the policy in full

Despite this optimistic view, it is worth considering the detail of this policy, to see what it offers to tourism businesses, local government and the nearly 10% of the workforce who are employed in tourism-related jobs.   The problem is, there really isn’t much detail here to go on.  With a colleague, Samantha Chaperon, I published this paper on the last UK Tourism Policy, and in this paper I reviewed the tourism policies of successive Labour Governments, from 1997-2010.

The lack of detail in this new policy document, which is only 6 pages long, makes it difficult to engage with in the same way.  The policy sets out five key areas, and in this blog post, I’m going to say something about each of them.

  1. Tourism Landscape

This first area of the policy is about the governance of Tourism in the UK, or, actually, in England.  As we’ve pointed out before,  tourism in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is dealt with by their own, devolved governments.  The last tourism policy seemed to ignore this fact, and it is good to see the Government acknowledge this issue in this new document.

This section starts from the premise that the governance of tourism in the UK is fragmented and confusing, and that the mix of relationships between DMOs, local government, national bodies and tourism businesses needs to be simplified.  This seems-self evident.  Certainly the industry will welcome a simplification in this area.

This is clearly an example of this new Government attempting to make up for some of the hasty mistakes of the last one.  The cuts in public funding for tourism, including for the national tourism bodies, regional development agencies and for local government, directly contributed to the fragmentation that this policy aims to address.  Hopefully this Government has learnt from its mistakes in this area as part of the 2010-2015 coalition.

   2.  Skills and Jobs

Again, after cutting funds for, or completely removing, specialist sources of support for the tourism sector in the UK, the government is now emphasizing the support that is available to tourism businesses.  There is no new support announced in this policy, but the Government is right to point out that there are a wide range of business support services available to all businesses, and that it is important to communicate this effectively to the tourism sector.  This is especially important for micro-businesses and SMEs, many of whom were previously able to access specialist support through  Regional Development Agencies, local authorities or DMOs.

The policy then goes on to talk about jobs in the industry.  There are no new initiatives mentioned, but the aspiration to help to create and support apprenticeships in tourism and to raise the status of jobs in tourism is a welcome one – organisations like the British Hospitality Association are already taking the lead in this area and should expect more support from the Government following this policy.

   3. Common Sense Regulation

This area of the policy contains nothing new for the tourism industry, despite a brief mention of the sharing economy.  The policy makes a commitment to reducing unnecessary regulation – which all governments say at the start of their terms – something that most businesses see as a priority.  It is not clear which regulations they think are a problem, but it will be interesting to see whether European Working Time Directive is on the list when Britain attempts to renegotiate its membership of the European Union this year.  It is hard to be against something that calls itself ‘common sense’, but not all regulations are a bad thing and it remains to be seen where this policy aim will lead.

   4. Transport

The Davies Commission recently recommended that the Government builds a new runway at Heathrow.  This is the big decision on travel that the tourism industry has been waiting for.  This policy gets us no closer to finding out what the Government will do about that recommendation, and instead seems to concentrate on how the train network can better support tourism outside of London.  This seems like an idea that is hard to disagree with – who doesn’t want faster, cheaper, cleaner and more dependable trains? Unfortunately,within the constraints of a privatised rail industry, it seems unlikely that Government has the right levers to pull to achieve any of these things.

  5. A GREAT Welcome

The word GREAT in this area is a reference to the GREAT Britain destination marketing campaign that was launched following the last tourism policy, in 2011.  The policy extends the concept to the welcome that is provided to tourists arriving in the UK. However, this area of the policy isn’t really about the welcome.  It is about the visa application process for tourists.  Of course, applying for a visa is an important part of the way that some tourists form their perceptions of the UK as a tourist destination.  I’ve never heard of the Visa process being reported as a big problem by our most valuable tourist markets – the USA, France, Germany and Australia.  It is a much bigger issue for emerging tourism markets, such as China.  At the moment, China isn’t even in our top ten source markets -the new policy may go some way to addressing this.

The welcome provided to tourists in the UK has often been rated poorly, especially compared to many of our competitors.  I don’t think that changing the visa process for some tourists will make a major contribution to solving this problem, which requires training, partnerships with industry, investment in facilities and a long term culture-change.

This new policy doesn’t really contain many policy initiatives.  Compared to previous policies it is very light touch, which some parts of the industry will welcome.  Many others however, will be concerned with the lack of any content on sustainability, the outbound sector, domestic tourism or the ongoing campaign to cut tourism VAT.  As with the last policy, it is probable that the real action on tourism will come from the planning and actions of Visit England and Visit Britain.

We are getting closer and closer to the point where the UK Government doesn’t feel the need to publish its own policy on tourism any more.  Some people would say that this is no bad thing.  In a few year’s time, we will be able to see whether this non-policy has helped the tourism industry in the UK, or held it back.

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Posted in: policy, Tourism