Exclusive: Tourism chiefs face criticism ‘for focus on showpiece events’

TOURISM chiefs have been accused of attempting to exploit showpiece events including next year’s Olympic Games at the expense of thousands of beleaguered Yorkshire businesses struggling in the continuing economic downturn.

Grave concerns have been expressed that the bedrock of the region’s multi-billion-pound visitor industry is gradually being eroded as the successful tourism organisation, Welcome to Yorkshire, undergoes a dramatic reorganisation amid Government spending cuts.

Welcome to Yorkshire is facing criticism that it has become too focused on ensuring the region benefits from major one-off events rather than providing a concerted publicity drive for small businesses attempting to survive the after-shocks of the recession.

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Senior executives at Welcome to Yorkshire are attempting to capitalise on transferring some of the benefits of the Olympic Games in London to the North, while also bringing other world-famous events such as the opening leg of the 2016 Tour de France to the region.

But influential figures in the tourism industry say there needs to be a far greater focus placed on preserving the foundations of Yorkshire’s visitor economy.

Among them is Richmondshire Council leader John Blackie, who runs a holiday cottage letting business with 70 properties in Swaledale and Wensleydale.

Coun Blackie, who is also a member of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said: “The thing that keeps tourism going is the thousands of small businesses, which are now facing some very tough times.

“Welcome to Yorkshire needs to realise that it should be focusing its efforts on helping these businesses, rather than looking at one-off events.

“It is very nice to say that we have the Olympic torch coming to the region, but it is here for just a few days of the year. The bread and butter of Yorkshire’s tourism industry needs to be protected all year round and not at the expense of these high profile events.

“All told, it is more than storm clouds on the horizon. If things do not pick up soon for a lot of businesses, there will be a very serious situation in tourism areas in Yorkshire.”

The Yorkshire Post has learnt that spending by tourists in some key destinations is down as cash-strapped holidaymakers who have managed to afford to take a break are becoming increasingly frugal with their money.

In the North York Moors National Park, visitor numbers at the two visitor centres at Danby and Sutton Bank have fallen by 11 per cent when compared with last year. Visitor spending has also fallen by five per cent.

Fears over support for struggling tourism firms have been amplified as Welcome to Yorkshire faces the loss of millions of pounds in Government funding.

The owners of businesses in prime destinations claimed more emphasis needs to be placed on a grassroots marketing strategy, with local authorities linking in closer with Welcome to Yorkshire.

Andy Brook runs the countrywear outfitters Royals of Leyburn, which relies on tourists for nearly half of its trade.

He said: “Tourism in Leyburn is dreadful at the moment, footfall is down and businesses are worried for their future.

“A clearly defined strategy is needed. Welcome to Yorkshire may be doing a brilliant job for the overall region, but we need support for tourism at a grassroots level.”

Research conducted by VisitEngland has revealed that the nation’s tourism industry has experienced a worrying fall in trade for smaller, independent businesses. A study which analysed the period between May and July showed smaller operators of bed and breakfasts and self-catering are not performing as well as bigger hotels and campsites.

The VisitEngland research also found that two-fifths of operators had reported visitors were spending less, 28 per cent admitting that the length of stay for guests had decreased.

But Welcome to Yorkshire’s directors are adamant the region is weathering the economic storm better than many parts of the country. Research shows visits to Yorkshire grew by 14 per cent in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the same period last year.

• More in Saturday’s Yorkshire Post