TOURISM is the lifeblood of Brighton and Hove and as English Tourism Week gathers pace, Nick Mosley talks to key players in the industry about what the future holds for our visitor economy.

English Tourism Week, which is co-ordinated by Visit England and started on Saturday, is a yearly event to highlight the contribution tourism and hospitality businesses make to the wider economy.

While perhaps not on the radar of the general public, it’s an opportunity for businesses and other organisations to communicate the financial and social importance of the visitor economy to politicians, media and consumers.

Due to Covid lockdowns, there has not been any comprehensive research conducted on tourism in Brighton over the past 18 months.

The city council’s most recent tourism economic impact study from 2019 reveals about 1,465,000 staying trips and 10.7 million day trips were made to the city that year, with a total estimated spend of £976 million in local businesses supporting some 24,000 jobs.

As tourism and hospitality businesses reopen – and with the concerns and complications of international leisure travel playing heavily on the minds of UK consumers – 2021 is being touted as the year of the staycation.

Barclays Bank recently announced its projections for the industry, predicting Brighton would see 1.1 million overnight staycationers this year with a total visitor spend of £843 million.

With the collapse of business tourism – meetings, conference, exhibitions – and international visitors, these numbers based purely around domestic leisure tourism are reassuring to an industry that has suffered so much over the past year.

“With the current difficulties around overseas travel, there is a huge level of interest in staycation tourism that is compensating very nicely for the reduction in overseas visitors that we are anticipating,” said Howard Barden, head of tourism and venues for the city council.

“There is a huge pent-up demand from domestic visits, eager to take UK breaks, so we are hoping for a buoyant summer.

"Last summer, when restrictions were lifted, hotel occupancy rebounded strongly so we anticipate a similar situation this summer.

"We are greatly encouraged by the feedback we are getting from hotels and B&Bs in the city, with restrictions now starting to lift, they are reporting very high levels of interest and bookings”.

The Argus: Howard Barden, head of tourism and venues for the city councilHoward Barden, head of tourism and venues for the city council

While MPs and councillors see the importance of the tourism sector to the economy, on a national level, it is clear to tourism businesses of all shapes and sizes that it’s not historically been particularly well recognised by central government.

For example, there has been an almost yearly churn of the ministerial post of Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has seen five people in the role since 2017 alone.

“Attractions like Sea Life have lobbied hard to the government throughout the pandemic and nationally other tourist attractions have been doing the same to create far greater noise around the importance the industry has to benefit the overall economy, said Neil Harris, general manager of Sea Life Brighton.

“We have made and seen great process with this as a result, for example the reduction in VAT really supported boosting tourism numbers and supported the recovery for visitor attractions.”

Perhaps because tourism encompasses so many types of businesses – from airports to tearooms – its difficult for government to define policy and support in the way it could for the likes of automotive or financial services.

“There are so many differing types of businesses and organisations within ‘tourism’ and also that benefit indirectly from tourism,” said Anna Prior of the i360 on Brighton seafront.

“Industry bodies such as UK Inbound, UK Hospitality and Association of Leading Visitor Attractions have done some excellent work through this challenging period.

"Perhaps the government will now explore these as routes to engage with the tourism sector.”

Howard Barden, whose remit includes management of the Brighton Centre, agrees there is a noticeable change in the government’s approach to tourism.

“On a national level tourism is undoubtedly rising up the agenda, with far greater importance being placed on both the economic and social benefits that it brings,” he said.

“The impacts of tourism, encompassing both business and leisure visits, span sport, arts, culture and heritage, so the challenge is to quantify and understand the many impacts that it has and how best to support such a diverse and often fragmented industry, which is often delivered by small and medium enterprises.”

Anne Ackord, general manager of the Palace Pier, is more forthright in her criticism of the government’s current stance. As a major employer, she’s also hugely concerned about attracting the right talent.

“The government reaction to hospitality during the pandemic shows that they do not understand our industry nor its importance,” she said.

“As an industry we need to continue to lobby government and we in this industry need to work hard to attract the next generation into it by close liaison with local further education colleges like Greater Brighton Metropolitan College in particular to ensure courses are relevant and reflect the potential a career in leisure and hospitality presents.”

The Argus: Anne Ackord, general manager of the Palace PierAnne Ackord, general manager of the Palace Pier

Gavin Stewart, chief executive of the Brighton business improvement district that represents many of the main shopping areas in central Brighton, agrees.

“Given the pandemic and the devastation it has caused to high streets and the visitor economy across the UK, we’d hope that the industry has risen in importance in Whitehall,” he said.

“There has been commitment from Government with the Welcome Back Fund but this needs to go further in helping our destinations to renew and grow, supporting skills growth as well as creating pathways for innovation with emerging technology such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.”

One resounding message from businesses during English Tourism Week is the importance of the quality of the visitor experience to ensure they keep coming back.

The Argus: Gavin Stewart, chief executive of the Brighton business improvement district Gavin Stewart, chief executive of the Brighton business improvement district

“Visitors will choose Brighton but we need to ensure they don’t just choose it once but make return visits and enjoy longer stays,” said Anne.

“There is lots of work to do on presenting the city in its best light.”

Gavin agreed, saying: “People think tourism just ‘happens’ and that places like Brighton will be OK.

"The reality is we need to work to deliver a world-class destination that people want to come back to time and time again.”