For 10 out of the last 11 years Cornwall has been voted the top UK holiday destination in the British Travel Awards.
Two decades of private investment worth hundreds of millions of pounds has elevated our visitor economy into the premier league of places to visit.
Tourism is now a two billion pounds a year industry, supporting more than 52,000 jobs and accounting for around 20% of all employment locally. On the Isles of Scilly, roughly 85% of all economic activity is tourism dependant.
Tourism industry lost £750m of income
It’s an understatement to say that 2020 has been a year like no other. The 13-week lockdown in April, May and June cost our tourism businesses an estimated £750m in lost revenue. In the UK, tourism revenue is forecast to be down by £68.6 billion
And we saw how inter-related tourism is to other industries – visitors to Cornwall spend more than half a billion pounds on food and drink in a normal year, and £220m on attractions and entertainment.
When visitors were permitted again from July 4, we saw two million people arrive in just 12 weeks, many of whom had abandoned their traditional sunshine holiday overseas to vacation at home.
Covid has given us a glimpse of a tourism future we do not want
And although we coped with that influx, there is no doubt that Covid-19 has foreshadowed what could be a growing issue. The pandemic basically concertinaed an entire tourism season into just a few short months. The instances of littered beaches, clogged car parks and jammed country lanes brought into sharp focus the fact that in some areas we do suffer from ‘over-tourism’.
That’s not new, and to an extent it’s something we have accepted as the price to pay for living in a beautiful part of the world. But it’s not sustainable. Covid has opened many positive avenues for change, but it’s also given us a glimpse of a tourism future that we don’t want. One in which more overcrowding and congestion impacts negatively on local communities, harms the environment and leads to a poor visitor experience.
Managing growth in a sustainable way
Tourism is a growth industry, and an opportunity for our region. The challenge is to manage it in a sustainable way. Even a conservative estimate of 1% annual growth would mean an extra two million day trippers a year by 2030, and 660,000 more staying visitors.
But simply adding more visitors to our existing pattern of peak-to-trough seasonality is not what we want in terms of jobs, steady income, our environment or our experience of living in Cornwall.
Instead we need to focus on getting the tourism we want, where and – importantly – when we want it. There needs to be far less seasonality and more investment in targetting new markets that will bring visitors where and when we need them.
Opportunity for a regenerative visitor economy
Growth isn’t a dirty word, but it has to be ‘wise’ growth. And instead of just trying to do less harm, there is an opportunity for our visitor economy to be regenerative, to reverse the cycle and actually restore what we have lost, from biodiversity to cultural heritage, while respecting and investing in our Cornish host communities.
The visitor market is changing, and we must change with it. Visitors are less sightseers than ‘sightdoers’. They want experiences that enrich their lives, and many of them want them closer to home, mindful of the climate emergency and other threats like covid and the uncertainties of post-Brexit travel to Europe.
The distinctive natural environment, culture and identity of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is what so many of our guests want to tap in to. It’s a huge strength. They also want quality, and research shows travellers becoming increasingly adverse to the risk that their trip will be sub-optimal, and their precious leisure time wasted.
The need to do things differently
If we are going to sustain a top-ranking visitor destination while tackling climate change, creating wealth for our local communities and protecting and enhancing our natural environment, then we need to do things differently.
We need to flatten the peak, delivering quality, year-round jobs where there are clear skills and career pathways. We need to retain more visitor spend in the local economy, so it is recycled many times over, and above all we need to manage capacity, so we do not destroy the very thing that makes our area so precious.
There’s an argument for encouraging people to visit our less busy places to try and spread tourism more evenly across the region and take pressure off honey pot areas. The notion of ‘sight-doing’ is crucial to this, encouraging and stimulating people to be inventive and seek out new experiences in different places. One of the impacts of Covid has been people’s greater appreciation of the natural world. What better place to give them a better understanding of their environment and their place in it than Cornwall and Scilly?
There are many tools to achieving these aims, from Social Tourism voucher schemes that enable disadvantaged families and frontline workers to holiday out of season, to public transport in which the LEP has invested heavily to make it easier for visitors to get to Cornwall and Scilly, and to get around when they’re here without reaching for the car keys every day. We need more investment in our rail and bus and electric vehicle infrastructure if we’re to decarbonise the visitor economy.
Sustainable tourism strategy
To help drive this whole debate the LEP has commissioned Cornwall’s tourism trade body, VisitCornwall, to lead a four-month discussion across industry, higher education research, and local and national Government to develop a sustainable tourism strategy for our area.
I firmly believe that Cornwall and Scilly can be exemplars in low carbon tourism and hospitality, while ensuring our businesses remain profitable, competitive and sustainable. Our goal is to retain a vibrant visitor economy and increase the value of tourism, while improving the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.
Mark Duddridge is Chair of the Cornwall and isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.