Comment: A £764 million question: How to cope with tourism?

Emma Thornton, chief executive of Visit Cambridge & Beyond, explains how the organisation is working alongside partners to ensure that tourism brings positive benefits to the city and surrounding area.

During the peak summer months, I receive emails from local residents concerned about visitor numbers. Some likened Cambridge to Disneyland during July and August, and others claim it affects their quality of life and enjoyment of the city centre.

This is an important issue. Cambridge is famous internationally and people want to come here – but we know that, with its medieval streetscape, the city faces challenges created by the volume of visitors, particularly those who only come for the day during the peak summer season.

Cambridge visitors contribute £764 million to the local economy, and account for 20% of local employment.

It would be foolish to turn our backs on this vibrant visitor economy – so our aim is to encourage value, not volume, tourism and to provide the best possible visitor experience.

Overcrowding doesn’t enable us to deliver this and, as an organisation, we’re working hard to find sustainable solutions.

A global problem

This challenge isn’t unique to Cambridge; it’s a worldwide issue.

Internationally, many destination management organisations (DMOs) have begun to adopt a strategic approach to the problem, to better manage visitor flow.

However, we don’t want to tackle the problem in the same way as Barcelona, for example, whose mayor has openly told people not to visit.

We need to adopt a holistic approach that still encourages people to visit – but to stay longer, spend more money and to travel further afield to lesser-known areas within the region.

We are particularly fortunate in Cambridge in that the majority of DMOs across the country are primarily marketing organisations, but we have an equal focus on management.

We are already involved in several strategies to deal with the threat of overcrowding during the summer months.

Space and movement

A high proportion of our day visitors (88% of our annual visitors) arrive by coach and all are dropped off in the same place – Queen’s Road.

These tend to be ‘low-value visitors’ as they are often only here for a couple of hours so their spend is limited, which is frustrating.

On a busy weekend in July or August we could have more than 100 coaches arriving, with people walking down the same two roads to access the city.

Our proximity to London is a great asset but can also pose a challenge: four trains an hour reinforces Cambridge’s day-trip reputation.

We’re currently feeding into several studies that look at how people access and move around the city.

For example, the city council is undertaking a “Space and Movement” study that looks at the way in which space is navigated, particularly by pedestrians, and Visit Cambridge & Beyond is taking part in discussions, alongside key partners such as Cambridge BID.

Alternative coach drop-off points, new pedestrian routes and improved signage are all initiatives that Visit Cambridge & Beyond will be helping to develop.

Spreading the benefits

Visitors currently have a fairly one-dimensional view of Cambridge.

People often think they’ve ‘done’ Cambridge if they’ve visited King’s College Chapel and had a punt on the river, but those of us who live and work in this beautiful city and its surrounding area know this isn’t the case.

There’s a huge range of wonderful things to see and do in the wider Cambridge region but there’s also a general lack of awareness.

When we became a DMO in 2016 we gained the freedom to promote these lesser-known areas and we’re working with our tourism partners in places such as Newmarket, Ely, St Neots, Bedford, Saffron Walden and St Ives to raise the profile of the surrounding area. Together we need to better tell the story of ‘Beyond Cambridge’.

Cambridge is the hub, the attraction, but we need to spread the benefits down the spokes to the surrounding areas too.

Encouraging investment

The government is developing an industrial strategy and VisitEngland and VisitBritain have submitted a tourism sector deal on behalf of the tourism industry.

If their bid is successful, the visitor economy will receive recognition at national government level, which would lead to investment to address some of the current barriers to development.

One of our barriers for exploring the ‘beyond’ is transport connectivity. For example, buses to Duxford and trains to Newmarket run only once an hour.

We are in discussions with the mayor and the new combined authority about connectivity, and other limiting factors such as skills, to ensure that we can maximise potential tourism sector deal opportunities.

Cambridge is the attractor brand, but the greater Cambridge area holds many attractions that would, particularly with improved transport links, enhance the visitor experience and extend their economic value to the region.

Working together

The threat of overtourism won’t dissipate overnight but, as a DMO, we now have the freedom to develop specific strategies to tackle the issue.

While Visit Cambridge & Beyond is taking the lead in this area, our actions will only be as effective as the working partnerships that we seek to build across the city and region.

Photo credit: Joe Higham Reportage