Helping visitors understand and enjoy more diverse tourist experiences

Delivering distinctive and different tourism

Helping visitors understand and enjoy more diverse tourist experiences

It’s always enjoyable – and challenging – to help select the winners in the special editorial awards categories at the annual Group Travel Awards. But it’s great to be able to recognise things that might otherwise not be spotted for their special significance and deserving achievements.

This year the GTO team was very keen to acknowledge the hard work that has gone into those projects supported by the Discover England Fund, which have unlocked new local tourism opportunities and partnership working.

Our presentation to David Andrews of Visit Wiltshire and the Great West Way project as the winner in our ‘Developing Incoming Visitors’ category actually came just a day after a launch event the project partners held at the London end of the route at Wellington Arch, at Hyde Park Corner. It’s a place where journeys once began and ended on the way to Bristol by road.

In fact, the event there was held to focus on a unique multi-modal visitor travel ticket offer involving Great Western Railway’s services and local buses, which we previewed in our feature on the route in our last issue. This ticket offer is a fine example of the partnership activity that has stemmed from the Great West Way concept, which is unlocking lots of less well known and off-beat places to visit and things to do, on and nearby the 125-mile route from London to Bristol.

Placing the spotlight on more local, specialist and sometimes transitory visitor experiences is happily becoming something of a trend in the UK tourism sector. It’s a development I’m particularly pleased to see as a contrast to the obsession with branding and marketing of so-called ‘world class’ tourism offers that still remains a feature of the approach of VisitEngland/VisitBritain.

Thinking outside the box and embracing and supporting the more quirky and off-beat at local level was sadly not much on the VE/VB agenda, until prompted by the politicians to start the £40m Discover England Fund initiative. Now, once again, it is welcome that members of the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons recently decided to explore how gardens contribute to UK tourism, the economy and to our national heritage.

Gardens and gardening are a really significant part of Britain’s culture and identity – and a genuinely nationwide offer – and though there are some obvious major famous names in this sector like the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and its gardens, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, there are hundreds of smaller specialist and more unusual garden-themed places to visit. Many are often little known but really captivating, and perfect to help develop the visitor economy in places not traditionally on the tourism radar, (or needing, or wanting, to be labeled ‘world class’!)

As well as individual local attractions and places to visit, other creative thinking can develop new visitor propositions by simply casting places in a fresh light. This is literally the thinking behind projects that are now celebrating the midsummer solstice, for example, when the long days not only provide a delightful opportunity for towns in the evening, but can boost local economic activity well outside of the normal main trading hours.

There’s been a growing number of museums and galleries that have late evening openings, and a huge increase in illuminations at Christmas time, but simply taking advantage of the long light days of midsummer in the UK to put on different kinds of attractions is surprisingly rather novel, as many venues still stick to a ‘9 to 5’ opening formula.

For instance, Nottingham hosted its first ever Lightest Night on Friday 21st June, making the most of an expected 17 hours of daylight and building on the success and popularity of the city’s Light Night in February. It included everything from an evening European market in the city’s market square with a bicycle bistro circus performance, a samba carnival parade, garden party and outdoor performances in Nottingham Arboretum. It’s a very welcome concept that can boost many leisure activities in towns.

Taking the benefits of seasonal and natural phenomena into the leisure and visitor economy can involve other innovative ideas, including exploring the night sky with astronomy and star gazing especially where ‘dark skies’ in remoter upland locations facilitate a much better view than is normally available with light pollution in urban areas. It’s a great opportunity for places, like Northumberland and Exmoor, to position themselves with a distinctive visitor offer!

Such projects are all about imagining what visitors can enjoy outside the normal guidebook trails of familiar tourist experiences, and helping people in the understanding and interpretation of more diverse pleasures and themes.

It’s all too easy to think of defining tourism by buildings, attractions and venues rather than environments, natural experiences and the recognition of just being in places for their unique stories, peoples and cultures.

It takes hard work to present and promote these more complex themes. The Great West Way is a wonderful example of what can be done!

This article was originally published in issue 289 (June / July 2019) of GTO magazine.