There have been some highly encouraging figures published in the past few weeks showing huge increases in inbound tourism.  Holiday visits to the UK are up 20% in the first five months of the year, with long haul markets leading the charge to our shores.  Of the UK’s leading global competitors, only Spain has seen a larger rise in inbound tourism so far this year.  Indeed, the 14.9 million holiday visits to the UK recorded in the year ending May 2017 has never been bettered by another 12 month period.

So the favourable exchange rate for those choosing to visit the UK has begun to take effect.  Given the time lag between trip decision making and the trip itself, particularly for holiday travel, this impact was never realistically going to be seen until 2017.

But by the same token, we should be wary of headlines telling us that the recent spate of terrorist attacks in the UK is having no impact on inbound tourism.  We know from previous experience that only tiny proportions of those already booked to visit will cancel their trip, so short term impact will be limited, but the impact on those currently planning a future trip could well be much more significant.  We won’t find out for a few months yet.

What has been covered in less detail has been the simultaneous increase in outbound tourism.  March to May this year saw holiday visits abroad increase 2% compared with the same period in 2016, again especially to long haul destinations.  This, allied with recent published data from VisitEngland showing falling domestic tourism in terms of both overnight stays and day visits, should be of concern to domestic tourism businesses outside of London.  All very well seeing these inbound visit increases, but we need to remember that around 75% of all inbound holiday tourism spend in England takes place in London, with this figure on the increase.

Step forward the Discover England Fund, the three year £40 million government funding pot distributed through VisitEngland which supports the development of world-class tourism products in across the length and breadth of England, encouraging international visitors to explore beyond London.  Following 20 Year 1 pilot projects, four projects for Years and 2 and 3 have recently been announced, including £1 million of support over two years for the major ‘Great West Way’ project led by VisitWiltshire.  This investment will develop a new, international visitor-friendly 125-mile route linking a package of tailored visitor experiences, destinations, accommodation, attractions and transport options.

What a fantastic opportunity at the most timely of timely moments.  But with the very strong emphasis of the fund on developing ‘product’, there are a couple of aspects that we need to remember:

  • Beware of falling into the ‘build it and they will come’ trap. They absolutely won’t if they don’t know it’s available.  Effective marketing remains critical despite the emphasis on product
  • These projects must be held accountable for their success or otherwise. Projects need to be supported by evaluation techniques which independently assess their impact

After all, the success criteria of these projects should not focus upon how efficiently these products were brought to market, but on their medium to longer term impact in terms of driving visitor spend in the region or even driving additional visits to the UK.

It is good to see that provision for product distribution, trade engagement and marketing and partnerships feature in VisitEngland’s guide towards successful bids.  However, there is an inherent danger that these take a back seat in that initial burst of enthusiasm and huge effort involved in developing and building the ‘product’.  At every stage of the process the projects need to keep revisiting the questions – ‘how do we position this to the market?’ and ‘how do we reach our target market with this message?’.  If the development of the product is moving down a particular alleyway, perhaps led by operational or political factors, it is critical to regularly review whether this path is one which continues to float the boat of the target visitor market.  If it doesn’t, we need to be brave enough to row back.

And ensuring that the success of these projects is properly evaluated shouldn’t just be a bureaucratic exercise undertaken so that funding process boxes can be ticked.  There is a real opportunity here.  An opportunity to demonstrate the return on investment for VisitEngland and partners if a project has successfully driven international visitors.  The opportunity to use this as an advocacy tool when seeking further government funding for tourism.  And perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to understand why some projects are more successful than others, as they inevitably will be.  What worked well, what didn’t work and why, and publish the findings so that funders and bidders alike can learn for future bids.  Too often, less successful projects are brushed under the carpet as those associated with them fear for their reputations.

The Discover England Fund could not have come along at a more opportune moment.  The market is there, the conditions are right.  Let’s make sure that ‘when you build it, they do come’.