The shock departure of chief executive Sir Gary Verity has put Welcome to Yorkshire in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. For more than a decade, the regional tourism campaign which supports and promotes an industry worth an estimated £8bn a year, was spearheaded by this charismatic sheep farmer from Coverdale.
And now he has gone, his leaving shrouded in allegations of erroneous expenses and less-than-gentlemanly behaviour towards other members of staff. We must leave Welcome to Yorkshire (WTY) to carry out its own procedures in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding his decision to quit, which was officially cited as on ‘health grounds’. And also, we must trust the existing board to ensure that as far as possible, it’s business as usual.
This is especially pertinent as the departure of Sir Gary comes as WTY prepares to mark its 10th anniversary and gets ready to launch this year’s programme of tourism events, which will take place next week at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.
What is clear is that all the good work which WTY has done to promote our region must continue. That it has been done without the generous central government support given to certain other regions to promote tourism is even more of an achievement. And in doing so, WTY has transformed the idea of tourism in Yorkshire into a cutting edge, highly contemporary offer which has blown the dusty old image of flyblown net-curtained cafes and cheesy “visitor attractions” straight into the middle of the North Sea.
It has also put tourism right at the centre of the economic case for One Yorkshire’s devolution; we may no longer have the coal mines and the textile mills, but we’ve got outstanding hotels, caravan parks and holiday cottages, excellent award-winning restaurants and pubs, historic castles and stately homes, museums, galleries and markets and acre upon acre of glorious countryside and coastline. Is it any wonder that all the world wants to come here? In particular, the organisation can take credit for turning Yorkshire into a world-class location for the multi-billion-pound sport of cycling. The arrival of the Tour de France in the county in 2014 was no accident; it was down to years of lobbying by Sir Gary and his team. And not only has the subsequent Tour de Yorkshire competition put us on the map permanently – and engaged numerous towns and villages in events and promotional activities which have benefitted their own economies – it paved the way for this September’s UCI Road World Championships, another global cycling event which will showcase this county, and its scenery, internationally.
The immediate concern for WTY will be to ensure that this autumn event goes to plan and shows us to our best advantage. So, while they get on with that, we must all fly the flag for Yorkshire at any opportunity. As the country swirls around us in Brexit chaos, we can at least prove that given a job to do in Yorkshire, we knuckle down and get on with it. And, of course, showing what we are made of right now can surely only do our case for devolution good.
Whatever the private circumstances of his departure, Sir Gary showed public self-confidence and chutzpah in equal measure. For all our Yorkshire outspokenness, these two qualities have often been lacking in our regional psyche.
With no clear successor at the helm, this must not remain the case. We should all take any opportunity to shout up about what our region has to offer; in our own conversations with others from less-favoured parts of the world, on social media and also, by taking an interest in what happens next with WTY by contributing to any forum for debate.
There are many questions to be answered and issues to be addressed. First and foremost, the challenge is to find a world-class successor to replace Sir Gary, and quickly. In addition, ideally the candidate should not be shipped in from elsewhere; a homegrown leader would be ideal. Clearly, WTY should look at its own governance and management procedures to ensure that every element works as effectively as possible.
Also, given the prominence of tourism as a major regional industry, the organisation should give focus to bringing our young people into the industry, by providing a wide range of apprenticeships and internships to ensure that the good work carries on into the future. And although there is a strong case for focussing strategy on hosting world-class sporting events, I’d like to see proper emphasis given to our cultural and historical assets too.
Where else in the world would you find the remains of a Roman city, an internationally-renowned sculpture park, several outstanding medieval monasteries and some of the finest examples of stately homes in the UK, all within an hour or so’s drive of each other?
So, unfurl that flag and start waving. Your county needs you.