Comment: Put heritage at the heart

Sarah Greenwood, of new heritage trade association Visit Heritage, says it is time that heritage is given its rightful place as the principal driver of tourism in the UK. 

No one is fooled into thinking that visitors from overseas come to Britain for the sunshine.

No, they come to enjoy our cities, our culture and our countryside.

There is one unifying factor in the appeal of these aspects of Britishness: our heritage.

It is the beauty of our historic buildings, the depth and maturity of our culture and the design and historical appreciation that underlies our landscape that makes the UK special.

Our heritage is full of global icons – Shakespeare and Jane Austen; tartan and tweed; roast beef and marmalade; Downton Abbey and Harry Potter. All rooted in heritage.

Yet say the word ‘tourism’ and conversation immediately turns to hotels and transport; the infrastructure of tourism.

I think it’s time that heritage was given its rightful place as the principal driver of tourism in this country.

Regionality trend

Lift the lid on current trends in tourism in this country and heritage attractions are behind most of them.

More people are visiting gardens and country parks, not just in search of wellbeing but fuelled by the National Trust’s long-term campaign to get us to enjoy its outdoor places.

As the falling pound brings more history-loving North Americans, visitor numbers in rural heritage attractions rise.

A thoroughly desirable trend in regionality is being led by heritage attractions.

While free national museums in London are a vital draw for overseas visitors, the real appeal is spread around the country with a unique network of country houses, heritage places and regional museums from Porthcurno to Skara Brae.

Northern Ireland, for example, is in the spotlight thanks to the popularity of Titanic Belfast (and a touch of Game of Thrones) and watch out for new developments for visitors to Hillsborough Castle in 2019.

Loyalty with locals

In England, this year has already seen the opening of Being Brunel at the SS Great Britainin Bristol while the much-anticipated V&A Design Museum will draw people to Dundee from September.

If our regional airport network responds to a need to move people around the country more easily or create points of arrival outside London, all these places will thrive.

Multiple- entry season tickets are building loyalty with locals while pre-booked openings in little known heritage places are perfect for groups looking for something ‘off piste’.

The fashion for staycations is boosting overnight bookings at the expanding number of historic buildings you can actually stay in whether you fancy a stately-home style family gathering, a cosy cottage on a country estate or a quirky Landmark Trust tower.

Icons of Britishness

Turn to my list of icons of Britishness. All can be directly experienced.

Visiting the Shakespeare Houses in Stratford-upon-Avon gets you close to our greatest national poet.

Not only does Jane Austen’s home survive at Chawton in Somerset but she was quite the traveller and you can find her at places such as Chatsworth and Goodnestone Park or track her through film locations at Stourhead or Groombridge Place.

The history of the clans and their tartans is everywhere in the Scottish Highlands from Dunvegan Castle to the Black Watch Museum and for tweed, try the restored 18th century mill at New Lanark.

Don’t just eat roast beef, explore the story of the ‘sirloin’, knighted by King James I at a banquet at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire and marmalade, of course, belongs at Chaw in Cumbria, home of the World Original Marmalade Festival.

Downton Abbey is at Highclere Castle but also at West Wycombe Park and Inveraray Castle while Alnwick Castle does a roaring trade in broomstick lessons for would-be wizards on the spot where Harry Potter learned his special skill.

These are the places and the stories that make up our nation; it is heritage that is the heart of our tourist industry.

• Visit Heritage is a new destination management organisation for heritage in the UK which combines two of Britain’s oldest tourism brands: Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens and visitheritage.co.uk