Making heritage work for Welsh tourism

Last week, it was decided that Welsh children and pensioners should be given free access to all historic sites run by the Assembly Government.

At first glance, this looks an excellent initiative and it was broadly welcomed by tourism chiefs across Wales.

However, many will be disappointed that it will not come into force until September 1st and will therefore have no actual effect on this year’s main holiday season.

The other issue regarding this scheme is that it is confined only to those living in Wales and all visitors will have to prove their residency and age, adding massively to the bureaucracy and complexity of administering the scheme.

Will you have to bring your gas bill with you for your kids to gain entry to Beaumaris Castle?

How will hassled heritage staff cope with having to argue with people over their residency credentials?

Apart from the issues of managing such a scheme, the Minister may also be missing a trick in his drive to support the Welsh tourism industry and there may be some lack of joined up thinking between his tourism strategy and the heritage portfolio, both of which fall under his remit.

For example, the latest statistics on tourism spend actually showed that spending by visitors from the UK had declined from £1.73 billion in 2005 to £1.42 billion in 2007, a decline of 18 per cent. Of course, the loss of £313 million to Welsh tourism may be due to a whole range of factors, but it is clear that we need to use every lever at our disposal to persuade UK visitors to come to Wales and, more importantly, to spend their money here.

As such, the residency rules within the policy may actually have an unintended negative effect.

For example, if you were a visitor from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland and standing in a queue for entry to Caernarfon Castle, what would you think if the family in front of you has just had free entry for their two kids because they were from Cardiff whilst you had to pay £9.40 for your little John and Mary to do the same?

On the other hand, as the overall intention seems sincere, why not just go the whole hog and drop admission charges for all CADW sites, as we have done with our National Museums and Art Galleries?

In 1987, Dafydd Wigley wrote that one of the chief objectives of tourism should be "to bring knowledge of Wales and Welsh identity and hospitality to the consciousness of the people within and outside Wales”.

Many will agree with those sentiments and if the Assembly is trying to sell Wales on the back of its cultural heritage, then we should be shouting out loud and clear that we are inviting people to come into our beautiful nation to experience our exceptional culture and history?

Such a free entry scheme would add considerable value to the visitor experience and as a result, many will return or, more importantly, recommend the attractions to their friends, which can only benefit the local tourism communities in places such as Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech.

In these days of tight family budgets, visitors may then spend the money they save on buying gifts, going to other paid attractions and dining out in local pubs and restaurants.

Now that would make a real difference to our tourism economy.

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