EXTENDING the tourism season beyond the natural limits of the autumn half-term is not exactly a new idea – it’s why Blackpool is festooned with light bulbs every October.
We had electric bulbs in our house but only one or two to a room – maybe three if there was a twisted brass arrangement on the lounge ceiling – but the excitement of seeing thousands of them in the middle of the road lured youngsters like me to the North Pier every year.
The promenade was choked with the cars of others similarly inclined, and thus Blackpool’s tourist industry could be said to be active for eight months of the year. The fact that most of the visitors drove through the illuminations, then turned around and went back home without ever getting out of the car, except to use the loo, was neither here nor there.
The illuminations remain but they belong to a different era, and it is lager, not lights, that tends to draw people to Blackpool these days. But the value of attracting visitors outside the high season is undimmed, and in an economy increasingly reliant on tourism, new ideas for so doing are welcomed almost universally.
So the news this week that the tourist agency VisitEngland was funding nine National Parks, including the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors, to develop what it called immersive visitor experiences all year round went down very well.
Until now, an immersive winter experience in Yorkshire has involved slipping on the driveway and getting stuck on a train in the wrong kind of snow. But given the right boots, it need not be the case.
The idea now is to attract tourists from abroad, whose holiday season does not necessarily coincide with ours, to these areas to enjoy the surroundings and make use of the facilities. In the Dales, research is said to have identified 35 to 55-year-old Australians and “mature experience seekers” as the target market.
Mature experience seeking sounds like a euphemism for what we used to call a mucky weekend, but what middle-aged Australians get up to in their own time is their business. The more who can be enticed over here to eat in our pubs, hire our bikes and stay in our B&Bs, the better.
Seriously, there is no reason why the Dales, the Moors and other parts of Yorkshire can not carve out their own niche markets for out-of-season tourists in the same way Blackpool did, and our creative sector can help make this happen.
It is hard to put a figure on how much hard cash next weekend’s Tour de Yorkshire is worth to our economy, but the travelogue-like pictures of the county at its best, on screen around the world, year in, year out, are creating a familiarity with the county that did not exist before. The region’s increasing use as a movie location also creates imagery that sticks in the mind.
But it has to be the right movie. The Railway Children was filmed on the steam line through Haworth and Oakworth nearly 40 years ago, but its lasting appeal, and that of the valley’s most famous residents, the Brontë family, has created a tourist economy that endures today.
Yet it’s a lesson Britain as a whole has been slow to learn. As the film producer Lord Puttnam has noted, America’s image and reputation worldwide was forged in no small measure by the way Hollywood portrayed it. Successive governments there recognised this and the studios enjoyed for decades a cosy relationship with the White House. Conversely, the declining influence of the US has coincided with the proliferation of internet footage showing the nation in the raw, as its own people see it. This sits discordantly with its tiresome “greatest country on Earth” mantra.
There is a further irony in that our tourist industry is having to look beyond our own shores to extend the season because fewer of us are prepared to make weekend day trips to our local attractions. Next year will see the 25th anniversary of the relaxation of the Sunday trading laws – a point at which visits to many traditional destinations fell off a cliff. Would we really rather go to M&S on a Sunday than to Malham? Apparently so.
So immersive niche tourism in the Dales is as encouraging a step forward as those Blackpool illuminations of long ago. And this time, we’ll actually have to get out of the car.