Welcome to Yorkshire and the Credibility Tests of Tourism Policy – Rhodri Thomas
My reading of the report suggests that Welcome to Yorkshire would fall short of its recommendations for best practice. The recent troubled history of our regional tourism board has not come as a surprise to many of us who are professionally interested in the study of tourism and destination management.
DMOs are independent bodies that only exist because there is what economists call a market failure – those who benefit most from promoting Yorkshire tourism are not willing to pay for it (or at least not enough). Instead, they rely on the people of Yorkshire to do so via their advice.
Yet some DMOs – like ours – are encouraged to speak and act like businesses rather than public or quasi-public agencies. It may seem appealing on the surface, but it also limits what the organization is trying to do and the opinions it considers valuable. This approach usually leads to failure in the medium term.
There are obvious differences between intervening in tourism markets with public money (which DMOs do) and being a true commercial enterprise. Jet2.com, for example, is a major local employer, but does not expect Leeds City Council or adjacent authorities to take the note for promoting flights to Malaga or any other destination simply because the company is located here and therefore creates jobs for the local population.
There are good reasons why local authorities would pay for a DMO, but they should do so with conditions. Instead of always focusing on the number of visitors, they could start with a larger canvas and consider what tourism could do for our society and the region.
An almost exclusive focus on promoting Yorkshire as an ever-growing place to visit misses out on the many opportunities that this sector offers locals. It seems to me that the public policy challenge is not whether local councils have to shell out money to overcome a market failure related to promoting a destination, but whether the objectives of tourism policy are sufficiently clearly articulated, expansive and – indeed – integrated with other policy areas.
As we reflect on the future of Welcome to Yorkshire and how it should be funded, I would like to suggest a few questions that might take our regional tourism policy deliberations in a different direction.
Why do we want to attract visitors to Yorkshire? The potential financial gains from tourism are obvious to many. What is less clear, however, is how much of the gain remains in Yorkshire and to whom the benefits accrue.
Should we expect something in return from those we support? We could, for example, have expectations in terms of training, quality of service and experience, environmental performance or other. Why should there be no strings attached to our investment in tourism?
Are we going to combine our thinking on tourism with our concerns about the major issues of our time, especially the environment? Will we integrate tourism into transport policies, environmental policies, business support policies and social cohesion policies, for example?
Do we think of tourism as a way to enrich the lives of Yorkshires? With a little thought, many aspects of our tourism offer could contribute to the well-being of residents in a way similar to the outings of our cultural sector.
And finally, are we actively involved in smart tourism? Smart tourism is about using technological capabilities to improve innovation, competitiveness and the tourism experience. This is an area where an DMO could provide much needed leadership.
Many of my observations would be less relevant if tourism companies paid for their OGD. Because they won’t, we must draw on the wealth of national and international evidence available to determine our DMO’s aspirations and approaches. In doing so, I suspect that new approaches would emerge that would bring more to the region.
Professor Rhodri Thomas is Dean of the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Leeds Beckett University and a former member of the Board of Directors of Welcome to Yorkshire.
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