Rural areas are missing out on tourism boom, MPs told

Opportunities are being missed to attract international visitors to the British countryside, Sir Gary Verity told MPs.

Sir Gary Verity believes rural Britain could be enjoying far greater benefits from overseas tourism than is currently being realised. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Britain welcomed a record of more than 36 million overseas visitors in 2015 and the weak pound so far this year is continuing to boost the tourism industry, yet the Welcome to Yorkshire chief said a variety of issues were preventing rural areas from realising the full benefits.

He identified poor public transport ticketing arrangements, a lack of roadside signposting, patchy mobile phone signal and closures of public toilets and tourist information centres among the reasons why half of visitors to the UK do not venture beyond London.

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Sir Gary also called for the Government to match fund bids by the private sector to attract tourists, while his counterpart, Jude Leitch, director of Northumberland Tourism, claimed Whitehall funding was failing rural regions.

Ms Leitch said smaller areas of the country where tourism bodies cannot afford to take their focus off attracting lifeblood domestic visitors had no choice but to rely on Visit England to lure tourists out of towns and cities.

The regional tourism chiefs were summoned to address members of cross-parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in London yesterday alongside Patricia Yates, strategy and communications director at VisitBritain and VisitEngland, to explain the challenges for marketing and supporting the visitor economy in England’s rural coast and countryside.

Sir Gary said Yorkshire tourism has enjoyed three consecutive years of record growth, starting from playing host to the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, but he warned that Yorkshire and the rest of Britain could do more to ensure rural areas benefit from the UK’s growing popularity as a tourist destination.

“The direction of travel is positive but there is a lot more we can do and that we need to do collectively because we are missing opportunities,” he said.

Sir Gary said it was “crackers” overseas visitors could not buy a train ticket in a city in mainland Europe that would take them beyond the capital via London.

Ms Leitch said cuts to bus services was another barrier.

“You can get to a mainline train station but often you cannot get any further,” she said. “In Northumberland, 96 per cent of our visitors come by car and when you’re trying to maintain a beautiful landscape the sustainability of that is very questionable.”

Sir Gary said there needs to be more brown tourist signs on major highways.

“I have failed to persuade the Highways Agency that on the main roads through Yorkshire, we should have signs to our three National Parks. If we want to say to people there are some really nice things you might want to look at, a sign would not be the most ridiculous thing.”

VisitBritain has made £40m available to tourism groups to help attract overseas visitors via its Discover England Fund, however Ms Leitch claimed the public body’s sister organisation VisitEngland was not funded sufficiently enough “to effectively promote rural tourism abroad”.