New Minister, new opportunities for domestic tourism?

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1. If you have not already heard the good news, Julia Lopez MP was appointed on 7 March as Minister of State for Media, Tourism and Creative Industries within the recently (7 Feb 23) restructured Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).  MP for Hornchurch and Upminster in Greater London since 2017, Julia first joined DCMS in 2021 as Minister of State for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure. With the exception of a brief break in 2022, this was a post and portfolio she held until this week.  The Minister of State’s revised portfolio, and tourism’s inclusion now within it, in practice means an increase in tourism’s profile within DCMS and Government in general.  Tourism has traditionally sat within the portfolio of one of the Parliamentary Under Secretaries and not with the Minister of State who as you will appreciate is second only in the Department to the Secretary of State.

You may have also noticed that Julia was appointed as a Minister of State at the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) on the same day. Dual departmental appointments are not unusual. The responsibilities for the newly created role have yet been publicly announced but it is a reasonable assumption that these are likely to relate to some or all of the Minister’s previous responsibilities for data and digital, recently spun off out of DCMS and into the new DSIT.  If that is the case, then it is an eminently sensible approach, ensuring continuity in the areas of digital infrastructure and data within DSIT, as DSIT finds it feet as a separate department with greatly expanded roles beyond those elements of data and digital previously managed within DCMS. 

It also has the coincidental advantage of putting an experienced Minister of State in to the newly created DSIT, who will soon also have rather more intimate knowledge of all matter’s tourism than the average Minister and Under Secretaries of State in most departments outside DCMS.  In that respect we are also very fortunate that rather than slipping sideway, or out of Government, as can often be the case, several of our more recent former Ministers for Tourism have gone upwards and hopefully will go onwards.  This too can only serve to help broaden government’s communal understanding of the roles and functions of tourism and the wider visitor economy.

Any recent natural concerns about the apparent absence of any reference to tourism, visits or visitors in the restructured DCMS new mission statement are, it would now seem, without foundation.  Press reports at the time made it very clear that, the major reorganisation was being done at pace, behind closed doors at No 10 and, thus, unusually without the benefit or any considered advise or comment from any of the Departments impacted. Its a guess but it seems to me that it is entirely possible that the omission of the word visit/visitors in the latest version of the mission statement, in itself something and nothing, was no more than a slip of the pen.

I would wager that it was something done without the sage advice from anyone in DCMS.  A department only too well aware of our industry’s hyper sensitivity about, names, titles and referencing, all born in large part out of the now historic struggle for recognition and appropriate levels of departmental and Ministerial representation. Things we have actually enjoyed now for many years, even if it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the departmental title, is not the sole responsibility of a dedicated tourism Minister, or that there is currently no “nod and a wink” to it in the mission statement, or indeed any one of a half a dozen past or present, residually perceived slights upon “tourism” that have been aired in the past and doubtless will be aired again in the future.   

Given the latest Ministerial appointments we can rest assured about our current levels of recognition. Even if some might still hope perhaps for a token mention in any future mission statement update to help further salve any unintended injury to sometimes, all too fragile feelings. Personally, if it were ever to happen I would favour, as in some past iterations, the use of the device of referencing tourism, or visits/visitor as a unifying purpose; words to the effect that DCMS looks after things like culture, media and sport in order to help make the UK a better place to visit and enjoy. I favourite because I think the approach neatly encapsulate the fact that tourism isn’t a single entity and that what it does is bring many things and many people together for mutual benefit. If the mission statement ever changes, then hurrah! If it doesn’t no real problem.

Like you I look forward to working with the new Minister and existing team at DCMS to further our shared interests in driving more social and economic value out of tourism. Or more accurately, to drive more value out of the broader visitor economy which is increasingly what destination do and what destination mangers actually manage. 

2. To that end and with our many destination members core interests in the domestic market in mind, we might be well advised to use the appointment of a new Minister for Tourism as a fresh trigger to yet again think long and hard about new ways for Government, at all levels, to support domestic tourism, in order ultimately to help improve both domestic tourism and the domestic tourism v domestic outbound balance of payment deficit.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the fundamental barrier to this isn’t weaknesses in domestic tourism as such, or the strength of the outbound domestic market but challenging the status quo, without accidentally butting head-on into Treasury rules or doctrine. In particular, the brick wall of internal UK economic displacement theory, which dictates that public resource expended encouraging spending in one part of the UK economy, that might otherwise just have been spent in some other part of the UK economy, on whatever, is always a waste of public resource and should be avoided at all cost.   

I remain convinced that in the case of domestic tourism, the spending choices aren’t just between Bournemouth or Blackpool or between Bournemouth, Blackpool or a new bed, more beans, a few more beers in the local, or any other domestic financial transaction you might care to mention. More often than not now, it is a direct choice between Britain or abroad for the average UK resident’s primary holiday and leisure activities.

I also remain convinced that between us the domestic focused part of the industry can evidence, that domestic tourism is no longer just a domestic economic displacement activity. Things in our industry have radically changed and continue to do so.  For example, whatever economists might think, the “main holiday”, now all too often taken abroad, is no longer regarded by many that actual take them, as “a discretionary activity” and spending choices are adjusted accordingly.  That is a fundamental shift and one with fundamental implications for other leisure and visitor economy activities that aren’t “main holidays” and therefore remain discretionary and subject to the vagaries of economic conditions, influenced by fiscal policy direction.    

If the old rules that govern tourism have changed then it is not too unreasonable to suggest some of the rules of national governance and fiscal policies might need to be adjusted too to reflect the new realities. I am just not absolutely certain yet how or when this can all be achieved, other than to know that it isn’t simply a case of articulating the arguments but of evidencing then beyond all reasonable doubt. The domestic v domestic outbound arguments have been doing the rounds for decades, starting I believe not too long after the advent of the popular overseas holiday itself in the mid-1970s.  What has never been assembled, or certainly not in the 30 years I have now been involved, is any attitudinal, qualitive or quantitative evidence to prove what many of us might still naturally believe should be all too plainly obvious. I.E.: that domestic market is often in direct competition with domestic outbound market. There are things which could be done to significantly improve the domestic market’s performance and redress the balance of domestic to domestic outbound. Due in large part to market failure issues, some of those things (most?) are in the gift of government and not just the industry itself.

This feels like a topic for a destination manager’s meeting, if only to scope out the core issues and some of the possible options.  Given the looming main season, this is preferably something to try and squeeze in before or in the short lull post Easter? More detail to follow. Meanwhile views on any or all of the above would be welcomed.


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