Is the Government finally getting serious about how social and digital media can boost British tourism?

Is the Government finally getting serious about how social and digital media can boost British tourism?

Summer has been normally the quiet time of year, when everyone in the travel industry is on holiday with the rest of the country.

But there’s been a sea change. The importance of tourism to the country, and rural areas in particular, is being addressed. And social and digital media is helping to drive the momentum.

The Government has just released a Tourism Action Plan while, at the same time, signing off seven tourism projects that largely feature digital projects.

The pace of change is partly driven by Brexit, with the Government belatedly recognizing the financial strength of tourism: £22.1bn in overseas receipts last year and a further £19.6bn spent holidaying at home. Tourism also accounts for 1.6m jobs in Britain.

The new policies are designed to make it easier for visitors to enter and travel around Britain beyond London while further encouraging stay-at-home travel.

But they are also determined to embrace social and digital media as visitors demand to book online and increasingly want real-time information in destination.

In an interview this week, Visit Somerset CEO John Turner highlighted the need: “Our digital consumer is becoming our Number One priority. And they are becoming very demanding.”

The seven projects to benefit from a three-year £40m Discover England fund were revealed recently, and show the importance being attached to digital marketing.

They include:

  • Golf Tourism England: a plan to develop an online platform for overseas tour operators to package and book.
  • South West Coast Path: using Beacon and other technology to book accommodation and provide live information for visitors walking the trail.
  • Compass Holidays self-guided activity app to provide offline content, initially in Cornwall and the Cotswolds.

Applications are now being sought for 2017-19 project funding, with further emphasis on online bookable products collaborative projects.

Developing rural tourism is key but equally paramount to funding is digital: “to develop bookable tourism products in line with market trends and in response to consumer demand,” says the Government. Find out here.

The Tourism Action Plan includes a commitment to more tourism apprenticeships, easier rail travel booking and acknowledgement of route-planning apps like Rome2Rio.

“Our investment in broadband and digital skills is key, as this is the platform on which tourism product is increasingly marketed, sold and reviewed,” says the plan.

There are commitments to set up 20 new ‘coastal communities teams’ in seaside towns, a nod to the need to improve the image of the seaside, as argued in a blog this week from travel writer Sally Shalam.

The developments are a welcome boost to the status of tourism, for too long not treated as a ‘serious’ industry by local and national government.

But there is a sea change here too, with publically funded tourist boards now giving way to private sector DMOs who don’t have the subsidies or staff but who see technology – like Visit Somerset – as a boon to effective future promotion on much tighter budgets, as I argued in a recent blog on the state of tourism in Britain and which generated huge debate.

Evidence of government interest is further illustrated by a current inquiry into rural tourism, which this week closed to submissions.

But the newly fashionable interest in tourism must be set against the background uncertainty of Brexit and the withdrawal of EU funding for tourism on leaving Europe: much of that money was earmarked for farm diversification and tourism projects to help boost income and jobs in rural areas.

It’s a start. And Brexit is focusing minds. Will it last? I ask again: is the Government finally getting serious about how social and digital media can boost British tourism?

Steve Keenan has been a travel journalist for 25 years. He started at a Reed paper, news editing at Travel News in London - now Travel Weekly - having spent the previous 10 years reporting general news at a variety of papers and news agencies, in the UK and abroad. He has also taught English in Peru, delivered cars in the USA, ran the Sydney desk at AAP and caught the train home from Hong Kong pre-fall of the Wall, the only hitch being a train strike in Belguim. Once Steve decided travel was his thing, he left TN in 1990 to freelance. He wrote freelanced for a variety of trade and consumer press, from L'Echo Touristique in France to The Journal of Air Commerce in New York. He began writing for The Times of London on travel news and business travel in 1996, went on contract two years later and joined the paper fulltime as deputy travel editor in 2000. In December 2004, he became the first national digital travel editor in the UK, running the travel website of The Times and Sunday Times. Three days after joining, the Indian Ocean tsunami happened and online reporting, video, webinars, analysis and comment suddenly made a lot of sense. The introduction of a paywall at the papers in 2010 persuaded him that the connected world might continue outside of Wapping and in December 2011, he left News International to co-form Travel Perspective. The company ran the inaugural Social Travel Market at Reed's World Travel Market in London last November, and now works with Reed Expos and other clients in helping the industry best understand and embrace the world of social and digital media in travel.

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