Tourism ‘industry’ – a fundamentally flawed misnomer

Comment: Victor Middleton OBE, independent tourism consultant and former chairman of the Tourism Society, argues the case for using ‘visitor economy’ over ‘tourism industry’.

On the face of it, government recognition and support in principle for tourism, especially post-Brexit, has never been stronger.

Supported by the prime minister, the minister for tourism in the current Tourism Action Plan wrote: “Tourism as one of the UK’s most important industries.”

Consultation is now proceeding on the new national Industrial Strategy, which includes tourism as an ‘industry.’

Yet, as a recent perceptive Comment piece (TravelGBI, News in Depth, February 2017) noted, “the important contribution of the tourism industry to the UK economy is relatively poorly recognised in Westminster.”

Lip service recognition has indeed increased, but real understanding in Westminster and local government lags way behind. Why?

No problem with the word tourism, which is defined by the UNWTO and globally recognised.

Tourism comprises two core elements with visitors as the common denominator.

These are visitors who stay overnight away from home for a wide range of purposes including holidays (the official definition of a tourist), and day visitors, who return home the same day.

To confuse us all, statistics are sometimes published for staying visitors only (tourists) and do not cover day visitors.

Often the volume and value of day visitors are simply lumped in as ‘tourism’.

The key point is that in the 21st century the bulk of all visitors at tourist destinations are actually not tourists as officially defined but residents of an area.

Not many politicians appear to understand that, but why would they if the key facts are not explained?

I am convinced the problem lies with misuse of the word ‘industry’.

We all know that the principal reason for government interest in tourism lies in the employment and economic activity it generates.

Visitors’ expenditure (day and stay) now amounts to at least 10% of the national economy – much more locally in coastal and rural areas with weaker economic prospects.

Westminster focuses more on overseas tourists because of their contribution to the Balance of Payments.

Vital though that 10% is to national prosperity it is far more significant that it now extends through virtually every community of the land from Land’s End and John o’ Groats.

The tourism sector, which is estimated to include more than 250,000 mainly small and medium-sized businesses, has grown to become a core, underpinning structural element in all local economies.

In turn, that supports a wide range of both manufacturing and service businesses that sustain tourism performance and growth.

Government is, of course, the principal beneficiary from visitor activity through VAT, APD, income tax, NICs, business rates, parking fees and other revenue.

This massive modern visitor activity defies definition as an industry. It can only be understood as the visitor economy.

For several decades tourist boards and business stakeholders in the visitor economy have lobbied to have tourism recognised as an ‘industry’. They have succeeded.

The word is now treated as a basic definition that we all understand although it has no international recognition and is not used by government statisticians who provide our official tourism data.

The visitor economy is a far wider concept that includes the so-called tourism industry.

Visitor economy reflects the sheer diversity of unconnected businesses ranging from air transport to zoos; it reflects the geographic ubiquity of tourism in 21st century life; it recognises that the largest market sector is not tourists at all but local residents enjoying the quality of life that their area supports.

Business enterprises are only one group of the stakeholders in the visitor economy.

It is national governments that plan and fund infrastructure spending; they fund public sector bodies responsible for the natural environment, the arts, recreation and culture.

Local government controls planning and development and funds key parts of the maintenance/enhancement of the public realm including roads, traffic control and parking, and civic centres that are core to maintaining ‘specialness of place’.

These public sector actions involve vast funding and provide the essential platform on which tourism businesses prosper.

But this spending is basically geared, as it must be, to residents who live, work and take most of their leisure and recreation in their home areas.

An attractive place to live and work is invariably an attractive place to visit.

Politicians do not recognise themselves as part of an industry but they are unavoidably already fully engaged players in the visitor economy.

To summarise, the visitor economy reflects the vast volume of visits for business, leisure and recreational behaviour generated by a relatively prosperous highly mobile 21st century population plus overseas tourists, who visit British destinations to use most of the same facilities.

It is politically convenient for a government to want to deal at arm’s length with a ‘thriving, vibrant industry,’ offering praise and encouragement whilst reducing the funding of the core public sector stakeholders in the visitor economy on which the future of tourism depends.

Unusually in tourism, this article is not a plea for more money. It is for better understanding and focus of what is being funded already.

Picture of Morecombe Beach: VisitEngland/Diana Jarvis