Harrogate to draw on spa town history to be sold as the 'home of health and wellbeing'

Curative waters that proved a draw in Victorian times could boost the visitor economy in a Yorkshire spa town and district which has been relaunched as the “home of health and wellbeing”.

Harrogate’s spa town history dates back to the 16th century when the wealthy elite of Victorian society would travel to the region to partake of its ‘healing waters’.

Now, with a new destination management organisation (DMO) looking to bring in more than £800m from visitors, the district is dubbed the “destination that will make you feel better”.

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Gemma Rio, head of Destination Harrogate, said: “The district has this amazing history, with a spa heritage dating back to 1751 when people flocked to Harrogate to take the waters.

The Turkish Baths at Parliament Street,, with manager Chris Mason. Picture by Simon Hulme

“We had health and wellness then – we still do today. It’s not something we’ve lost.

“What is special is that story has been consistent for all of these years. Our visitor economy is built on it – it’s at the core of what we do. It’s part of Harrogate’s history.”

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Through the years: Taking the waters in Harrogate

Destination Harrogate is to oversee strands around culture, events, visitors and business, driving investment into the district, encouraging responsible and sustainable tourism, and with grand plans for its direction.

Gemma Rio, head of Destination Harrogate

First there is wellbeing as a visitor draw – aimed at country-loving traditionalists and mini-breakers who might go for a spa day at the town’s Turkish Baths or Rudding Park.

Mrs Rio stressed that wellness to some people might mean a walk in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or a night at Harrogate Theatre so culture will be part of its overarching vision.

The body looks to bring together ambitions that could see Harrogate’s Old Pump Room Museum tell its spa waters story, while exploring potential to realign the Royal Baths with its original purpose.

Meanwhile Mercer Gallery is looking to be linked more prominently with exhibitions.

Ewes with their lambs graze in Colsterdale in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Beauty near Pateley Bridge. Image: Tony Johnson

Visitor economy

The visitor economy in Harrogate in 2019 was worth £606m, supporting nearly 8,000 jobs and with 6.5m visitors. Now there are ambitious growth targets, for it bring in £836m by 2030.

Key to this is the town’s convention centre, said Mrs Rio, with aims to support it in becoming a first choice ‘events destination’, and drawing leisure events to the district that align with its key ‘pillars’.

Among specific suggestions mentioned was a yoga festival, gardening or food and drink, music and comedy, while supporting a vibrant, year-round cultural programme from Christmas fairs to carnivals.

Harrogate Pump Room and Museum. Picture Bruce Rollinson

The idea is that if something is “big enough, and interesting enough”, people will travel for it. When they travel, they might stay in a hotel.

Mrs Rio said: “If every one of our overnight visitors stayed an extra night it would bring £115m into the economy. Make it a weekend, make it a week.

“Harrogate is an events destination – embedded in a heritage spa town,” she added. “That is unique. With phenomenal green spaces – the World Heritage Site at Fountains Abbey, Newby Hall.

“There’s no shortage of stories to tell. We just need to shout about it in a better way.”

Destination Harrogate

Destination Harrogate, a part of the borough council, has three key areas – Visit Harrogate, Events Harrogate, and Invest Harrogate.

It aims to showcase the district to attract visitors, events and investment to create a strong local economy for businesses and residents.

Since its launch event in March, Gemma Rio said there had been overwhelming backing. She said: “If we all come together we can all do a better job. It’s about collaboration.

"It’s not hard to get someone to consider Harrogate. It’s beautiful and it has a reputation for being beautiful. There’s never been a more exciting time for Harrogate district to work together to achieve what is a very shared vision.”

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