County Durham is a wonderful place to visit, and is steeped in medieval and industrial heritage. We have a heritage coastline, fantastic dales, and the Durham Cathedral and Castle complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durham is often overlooked for it’s more showy neighbours – the Lake District, the Yorkshire dales and Hadrian’s Wall country. This makes it a fantastic place to grab some scenery and history without the crowds.
Durham council know all this: we host the Lumiere festival of light every other year, we placed a serious bid to become the UK City of Culture 2013, and I’ve seen repeated claims that tourism is a major and important growth industry for the county. So what are they doing? They’re pulling transport links and closing the city Tourist Information Centre.
Let’s tackle the Tourist Information Centre first as the connection to tourism is slightly more obvious. In their wisdom, the council has decided to close our Award Winning Tourist Information Centre as of the end of this season. Yes I did say Award Winning: we won silver prize at Visit England’s Enjoy England Awards earlier this month. The decision to close the site had been taken only a few weeks earlier.
Two questions: why do this, and what are the consequences?
The why question is easy enough: we have less money to spend, and tourism (and public transport) are easy targets. As to the consequences, the council argues that visitor information can be provided effectively in other ways. It sounds to me like wishful thinking. Whenever I visit somewhere I’m instantly on the lookout for the Tourist Info. I’ll have a look at the leaflets, pick up transport info, ask any questions I have, and feel much more confident that the place is welcoming of visitors. When I first visited Durham (with an eye to moving here) I spent a lot of time scouring the information in the visitor centre. After the horrors of North Road and the monstrous bus station I felt very reassured. I was also impressed by the extensive bus network.
Durham council has invested a lot of money in redevelopment with an eye to bringing the tourists in. The Market Place is receiving a makeover (it’s taken a year so far, but will look good when it’s finished) and I’ve seen plans to redevelop the dreaded North Road and bus station (the Dark Side of Durham apparently). It seems really petty to take away the Visitor Centre: it can’t cost that much to run, surely? The irony is that Peterlee – one of Durham’s New Towns, and definitely not on the tourist trail – is keeping their Tourist Info. It’s only about twelve miles away, so not far to go if you’re visiting the City then…
In another obvious cost cutting exercise, this month also saw the end of bus subsidies. Durham has withdrawn its support for evening and Sunday/Bank Holiday services, as I’ve previously blogged about. There’s an obvious and drastic loss of service to local people who either cannot afford to run a car or are unable to (the young, the elderly, the disabled…). But there will also be an impact on tourism. It may in reality be a slight one, but not every visitor to Durham arrives by car (and a good job too). It is now impossible to get in and out of Weardale or Teesdale by bus on a Sunday or Bank Holiday. For local carless people this means that a weekend away in the Durham Dales is now impossible – you can get out but can’t get back. Carless visitors – for example visitors from the South or overseas – will also find travelling far from their holiday accommodation on a Sunday very difficult to do.
I’m afraid that the messages our visitors will take away is that they are not welcome, there’s nothing to see here, please take your custom – and your money – elsewhere.
Given we’re supposed to be promoting tourism I can’t help thinking these cuts will prove to be an own goal.