Comment: Solving tourism congestion

Tourism Alliance director Kurt Janson suggests some ways in which government can manage the rising overcrowding problem in UK tourist destinations.

Overseas tourists and UK residents took almost 2 billion trips in the UK last year including day-trips – an average of 5.5 million trips per day. With the pound dropping against currencies like the euro and the US dollar by around 15%, these figures are likely to increase significantly this year as more overseas visitors come into the country and more UK residents holiday at home.

When you look at these raw visitor number it’s easy to see why residents at some of the ‘honeypot’ destinations are starting to say that enough is enough and that their local community cannot cope with increasing numbers of tourists.

In this situation, there is usually a call from residents for the local council to do something to resolve the situation, which frequently equates to a call to restrict tourism numbers. However, such an approach is both simplistic and difficult to accomplish.

For example, if you are going to restrict the number of people to a destination, how is this to be achieved? The usual market-led response would be to allocate admission on the basis of a customer’s willingness to pay. However, if you take this approach then visiting culturally and historically important sites will simply become the preserve of the wealthy which is bad for society.

Alternatively, you could allocate the resource like a lottery where everyone has an equal chance of getting a winning ticket. But again, this is a problematic – how would tour operators be able to sell product overseas and how would you prevent the emergence of ‘destination touts’ creating and profiteering from a secondary market?

And this is before you get onto the more practical considerations of how you restrict people entering somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge and, if you set up ‘border checks’, how do you differentiate between a tourist and someone coming to Oxford to go shopping, visit a friend or work?

So, if you can’t solve the problem through resource allocation, what can you do? The simple answer is through the implementation of policies that support better tourism management. Here are a few examples of what government could do to ease the problem.

Reduce VAT on accommodation
At the moment, 92% of tourists are day visitors. These are the ones that cause the most congestion as they spend a large percentage of their day travelling (usually by car) and spend the least in the destination. If the government reduced VAT of accommodation it would encourage people to switch from daytrips to weekend trips, thus lowering congestion while increasing the benefits to local destinations.

Sort out school holidays
The government’s policy of strictly enforcing absenteeism in schools is having a significant impact on tourism patterns in the UK. The ‘Gove effect’ means that domestic tourism is extremely concentrated into relatively short periods when children are on holiday, causing peaks in congestion. This is detrimental to destinations, families and the tourism industry. The government needs to address this by spreading-out the timing of holidays and by adopting a more common-sense policy on taking children out of school during term-time.

Increase council funding
One of the main complaints that residents have about the impact of tourists is to say that the local facilities simply can’t cope with the number of visitors. As such, the problem is more to do with the provision of inadequate facilities.

Since the economic crisis in 2007, council funding has decreased significantly, resulting in councils reducing their spending on anything that is not a statutory function. Tourism has been one of the areas that has been hit the hardest with councils decreasing their tourism funding by 60% over the past 10 years. This has significantly reduced the ability of councils to provide the facilities required to cope with increased tourism numbers.

One way to solve this would be for government to allow councils to retain some of the revenue generated by tourists in business rates so that this could be recycled into improved facilities.

Statutory responsibility for tourism
It is very hard to solve tourism management problems if there is no one actually responsible for managing tourism. Up until 2012, Regional Development Agencies had statutory responsibility for tourism development in England. This meant that they had to develop and implement tourism development and management plans for their region. When the RDAs were abolished, there ceased to be any body or agency responsible for tourism management at a sub-national level.

This needs to be rectified. Once there is body with a statutory responsible for tourism, then there is a focal point for developing management plans that benefit both the residents and visitors.
Daylight saving
Finally, it has long been recognised that one of the constraints on the tourism season in the UK is that we operate on British Standard Time which hinders tourism development in the shoulder seasons by significantly reducing the hours of usable daylight. Moving the clocks back an hour year-round would both reduce seasonal tourism peaks and boost the long-term sustainability of the industry.

The underlying lesson here is that government tourism policy needs to shift away from focusing on product development and promotional activities and toward adopting a more wholistic approach of tourism management. Only by doing so are we going to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.