LATEST official figures show visitor numbers to Brighton’s attractions dropped last year.

But key names in tourism say there is no cause for alarm – and things are already on the up.

Year-end figures show a one per cent drop in visitors last year compared with a five per cent increase across the South East.

Some say the city is not welcoming enough to visitors and council-run attractions are not responsive to market forces, particularly regarding entry prices.

Hotel owner Nick Head said: “The council is just not savvy enough.”

But council leader Warren Morgan responded by saying things are not as gloomy as they appear.

And he revealed visitor numbers for the critical April-June period this year are 10 per cent up.

The figures for 2016 from VisitEngland show 5,162,990 people visited the seven tourist attractions in the city monitored by the organisation.

These are Brighton Palace Pier, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum, Hove Museum, the Booth Museum, Preston Manor and St Bartholomew’s Church.

The number compares with more than 5,200,000 the year before – a one per cent decline.

Especially poor performers were Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, where visitors dropped 51 per cent on the previous year after entry changed from free to £5 per head.

The Royal Pavilion experienced a 4.7 per cent decline in footfall.

Councillor Morgan stressed that last year tourist numbers were affected by rail strikes and perception of rail links as well as by adverse publicity on the continent following the Brexit vote.

He said this year, visitor numbers were up and knock-on retail spending was also up.

Anne Martin, head of the Brighton and Hove Tourism Alliance, warned against complacency but said: “I don’t think it’s a serious situation currently.

“I don’t think it’s a big enough drop to read too much into it.

“When you see a small decline like this, it’s a warning sign.”

She called on the council and business owners to focus on the importance of the tourism economy.

Glynn Jones is the newly appointed head of the board which runs the Pavilion and museum and will take both into independent management next year.

He said while the council had done a good job, the new organisation would be able to respond more quickly to market forces.

But he said there were no plans to revisit the decision to charge entry at Brighton Museum.

WE ARE HAVING A GOOD SUMMER

COUNCIL leader Warren Morgan insist the picture is not as gloomy as the figures suggest.

Councillor Morgan said attendance figures for the city’s attractions for April to July this year showed like-for-like growth over 2016.

He congratulated the paid-entry Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum for the high numbers visiting their current exhibitions of Jane Austen and John Constable.

He said: “The feedback we have had is that despite some of the factors we are contending with, and the fact that there is a lot of work ongoing on our seafront to improve it, reports are that we are having a very good summer.

“The arrival of Premier League football will help boost visitors and our global profile even more.”

Gavin Stewart, head of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership, believes this year is looking better than 2016, saying: “Anecdotally, businesses have been reporting good sales, both in the hotel and retail sectors.

“In the last week, footfall locally was up 7.8 per cent while the UK average only increased by 1.5 per cent.”

STAY ON TOP OF THE GAME

“WHEN you see a slight decline, it’s a warning sign that we have to stay on top of our game,” said Anne Martin, who runs Brighton Palace Pier and heads the tourism alliance.

“That means the attractions and the businesses and the council must focus on tourism and stay aware of its importance to Brighton. We can’t take our eye off the ball. There are positives – the i360 and the zipwire are welcome additions.

“One of the thing the tourism alliance is always concerned about is that the city isn’t always as clean as it could be.

“And we don’t have a very good welcome to the city, we don’t have hosts or enough city greeters.”

John Baldock, of the Theatre Royal, said: “If people have queued in traffic and then they are met with dirty streets and the social issues the city faces it’s not good.”

But he said after feeling the pinch in bar sales of theatre-goers travelling by car not rail last year, business was returning to excellent health.

The Argus: Litter left on Brighton seafront

DIRTY APPEARANCE IS OFF PUTTING

THE weekend’s Pride celebrations left Brighton and Hove looking the worse for wear but City Clean is working busily to clean the city up.

However some say the city looks tired and dirty and is potentially off putting to visitors.

Brighton Palace Pier boss Anne Martin, who heads Brighton and Hove Tourism Alliance, said: “A lot of the seafront needs painting.

“In the Madeira Terraces area it’s the Tourism Alliance working hard to keep it clean and keep the weeds away, just to keep that area of town alive.

Soozie Campbell, former head of the alliance, said: “We did a survey and people do have a problem with rubbish.”

John Baldock, of the Theatre Royal, said: I do think we have to look at the impression we create. The problems we face are complex but I do worry how they’re being dealt with.”

PARKING AND TRAVEL CHAOS

ONE of the factors which contributed to a downturn in visitor numbers in 2016 was the months-long dispute between Southern Rail operator Govia, and the RMT union over the role of conductors on the trains.

The fight created delays, cancelled trips and hours of daily frustration for commuters and tourists alike. It became such prominent news that Brighton’s inaccessibility by rail was a running gag on topical TV comedies such as Mock The Week.

However Soozie Campbell, former head of Brighton and Hove Tourism Alliance, insists the city’s transport problems are not confined to the rail network.

She said: “I’m not at all surprised by these figures. I was concerned that the rail problems would affect people coming but it may be more than that.

“It is still just too hard to get into Brighton with the congestion and the high parking charges.”

She called on the council to rethink its planned redevelopment of the Valley Gardens one-way system, which she warned would worsen traffic problems, and to decrease parking charges.

The Argus: The Royal Pavilion

IT IS NOT ALL ABOUT THE NUMBERS

LAST year the Royal Pavilion was criticised for a ticket price increase from £12.30 to £13 which is scheduled for later this year, and the Brighton Museum changed its entry policy from free to a £5 charge. Both venues have seen visitor numbers fall, by five and 50 per cent respectively.

Glynn Jones, former West Pier Trust chairman who now heads the “shadow board” which will take the venues into independent management by next year, said there were no plans to revisit those decisions.

He said: “You can’t just ‘stack em high and sell em cheap’.

“The problem with visitor numbers is you can only get so many people through the Royal Pavilion and if you cram too many people through they don’t have enough time.”

He said competition for tourists in the city was intense and the board intends to work harder on teaming up with other venues to create combined ticket promotions. He added that independence from council control next spring would allow the venues “greater freedom to respond to the market”.

COUNCIL ISN’T SAVVY ENOUGH

“These council-owned attractions are very expensive for people, that’s the feedback I hear,” said Nick Head, owner of the Ambassador Hotel in New Steine, Brighton, and former head of Visit Sussex.

“The council is just not savvy enough in responding to market forces.

“When you compare to say the National Trust, they’re so savvy and switched on and the council are just not.

“Take one example – they send discount vouchers to the hotels for their guests, but only in winter, “Would it make a difference to them to lose a pound off every visitor in the summer if they got lots more visitors and they all spent money in the gift shop and tea shop too?

“Rather than create this board they’ve created I think they’d be better to give it to a private company to run, like the Royal Palaces.”