Reasons to be cheerful?

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After what has been undoubtedly a joyous Platinum Jubilee long weekend, we can be reasonably happy with the initially reports that suggest that, aside from so weather-related blips, most if not all domestic destinations have experienced a good to excellent long Bank Holiday.  Hopefully more detailed reporting and some proper analysis of the results in due course will confirm the initial view and quantify the scale.

Very much on the home front the weekend brought the really good news that Kurt Janson Director of the Tourism Alliance had been awarded a richly deserved OBE in the Queens Jubilee Honours List. This news came in the same week that Kurt made public his intention to retire (it’s all in the timing!). Great news for him but sadly rather less so for all of us who have come to rely on Kurt to hold the fort in London and fight daily battles on our joint behalf.  As a result of Kurt’s unexpected announcement, the Tourism Alliance Board will be looking at the manner and means of replacing his contracted services over the coming weeks and few months.  With a late August retirement date looming, the Joint Annual Conference on 22 June will be the last guaranteed opportunity for many of Kurt’s colleagues to wish him well in person. So, apart from the excellent content and speakers, there is yet another good reason to book: more here.

Also of note is last week’s announcement of Bradford’s success in its bid to be City of Culture for 2025.  Another well-deserved award.  As one of British Destinations’ large City members Bradford’s good fortune gives us a new opportunity to look more closely at, and to share more information on, culture’s role in the visitor economy in the run up to, during and then after 2025.

Moving to less welcome news, the Jubilee Weekend and associated half term holiday served to further expose the serious capacity issues plaguing UK airports and air travel and reignited another round of pass the blame game parcel between HMG, the airports and carriers.  It also served to make BA earlier and heavily criticised announcements, despite booming demand to cut schedule flights to 80% of pre 2019 levels from March to October 2022, seem rather more rational than it did at the time.  It now looks and feel like, that before taking the brakes off international travel, HMG, the airports and carriers should have come up with a realistic, joint plan to better balance real capacity and the likely runaway demand? That is of course rather easier said than done, particularly given a history of stop start decisions making during 2020 and, in particular, during and right up to the end of 2021 and the increasingly desperate calls from the airline industry to do something, anything to restore confidence and demand during 2022. In retrospect it looks like a bit of an own goal all round.

 Doubtless, things will improve (significantly?) before the hight of the summer school holiday peak period; a peak that many have already booked for, many of them prior to the rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis becoming such an obvious issue. For those still sitting on the fence about their summer holiday plans the reported airport and air travel chaos, along side some Eurostar and ferry disruption, can only serve to make more, lean towards or even jump off on to the domestic side of the fence.  Given that cost-of-living issues are now bound to supress some key domestic customer group’s summer day trip, short and longer stay plans this summer, any additional staycations generated by overseas travel uncertainties will not just be welcome but in truth much needed to fill some of the new gaps we are already able to confidently predict.   

It is all too easy for the domestic industry to look at the issues for outbound domestic travel with a wry smile and write them off as being a generally good thing.  Unfortunately, many of the assets involved and especially the airports and some but not all aircraft are shared with the inbound market. It is an assumption as yet, because we not actually asked or heard from colleagues in VB who have direct access and staff living and working in key markets but it is a reasonable guess that any international reporting of the real or perceived difficulties currently being experienced isn’t going to help the already shredded international inbound market recover, or at least recover quickly?  The critical questions here is: is it being reported in our key markets, as doubtless it would be if these were normal time and large numbers of international leisure travellers were being negatively impacted?

Some destinations, who don’t receive large numbers of international visitor annually, might of course think, “so what if international inbound tourism isn’t recovering”?  The so what, is of course that those UK destinations that would normally host international visitor at scale aren’t simply sitting on their hands but are working hard, and in London’s case marketing big to attract the domestic market as a direct replacement.  That means traditional domestic destinations are not just having to compete with the resurgent draw of outbound international travel, wrestle with limiting effect of a new cost-of-living inspired downturns but also now dealing with a genuine case of short-term internal UK market displacement (something that in a properly functioning international inbound, domestic and domestic outbound market we would normally refute).  All of this comes on top of price pressure on business related fuel, energy and raw materials and supply costs, plus the double-edged sword of staff shortages and increasing staff costs.

Subdued domestic outbound travel is in general good for the domestic market, but as with everything we have had to deal with in the last two years nothing is a single, linear process that simply and seamlessly diverts additional source of demand to unaffected additional source of supply. Added to this the huge range and different quality, standards and types of products available and the different types and needs of the consumer and it easy to see why it is never going to be a case of everyone in the domestic industry wins if fewer Brits go abroad.

Tonight, we will see the long talked about and long in its coming, vote of confidences.  As we were discussing as long ago as last January vulnerable or wounded PMs and their administrations are more inclined, on occasion, to make poor but popular or avoid necessary but unpopular decisions, and by definition usually for all the wrong, long-term reasons. Arguably the air industry’s current difficulties are a potential example of the consequences of a hastily made, popular, policy announcement made at seemingly no notice and therefore probably with inadequate discussion and little or no thought to the practicalities and longer-term consequences?

Whatever the outcome of tonight’s vote and whether you agree or disagree with it, or the background to it, the PM and his administration will be at best vulnerable and worst mortally wounded.  We will either retain this administration but arguably an administration with an even keener eye on the demands of maintaining popularity over necessary substance.  Or, after a long period of debilitating uncertainty and inaction during the removal and replacement of the PM, we will get a different leadership of an essentially different administration A new administration in all likelihood intent on marking the change by doing things very differently, including potentially much that has already been set in train but is yet to be delivered upon (e.g. everything from delivering Brexit to levelling up).  At best the latter will means much of 2022, including the critical main summer season will see little or no political and therefore little strategic and policy certainty. Whatever we get it will be running in parallel with an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis.

Whatever your politics and whatever your views on the background, popularity driven policy or political uncertainty or even a political vacuum, is just about the last things the tourism industry, needs as we approach the critical 4 month of what is supposed to be our first true full year of largely unaided recovery. The public tend to react to periods of major political and/or economic uncertainty by being more cautious, cutting back and hunkering down for the duration. The only thing that is absolutely certain before any vote is cast, is whatever happens now in respect of tourism it will be in the hands of the individual destinations to manage and mitigate. HMG aren’t going to ride to the rescue of the coming English domestic summer season and may not be in a position to do much for the rest of this year or beyond. 

The devolved Governments may take a more proactive approach towards tourism (they usually do), but ultimately even that is limited by what Treasury make available to them.  Treasury may (will) not be in a position to instigate any new financial measures for some time yet and any they do come up with in time aren’t realistically going to be aimed, directly at least, at either the demand or supply sides of tourism, leisure or the visitor economy. In the absence of anything else more constructive to do, it might be time to tweak and refine the summer marketing plans?

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