We’ve got our tourism strategy wrong in Wales and communities will suffer as a result
Much of the last week has been dominated by debates over the influx of people into Wales. The problem was so severe that several political leaders in North Wales wrote to the First Minister to say that that they were “extremely concerned” about tourists’ ability to maintain social distances in our seaside towns. Illegal parking in Barmouth, overcrowding in Abersoch, and floods of people in Snowdonia: these are some of the serious and real challenges facing people across Wales.
Not everybody agrees, of course. Jim Jones, chief executive of North Wales Tourism, warned over the weekend that negative comments about second-home owners and tourists is holding the Welsh economy back. There have been misguided messages about ‘diseased’ visitors, parking, litter and ‘selfish’ beach-goers, according to Jones, who added that those who choose Wales as a second home make up a significant part of our communities too. How could we forget that? Diolch yn fawr, Home Counties!
Nobody can argue that an influx of large numbers of people does not represent a huge challenge to these Welsh communities, who even before coronavirus were crying out for better transport, health and broadband investment. The current crisis has put even greater pressure on towns and villages to balance managing the economic impact of lockdown measures with how the easing of restrictions may bring further dangers to public health.
It is also clear that our current open-door strategy to cope with this is seriously misguided; essentially no matter where you’re from in Britain, Wales is open. This means that Welsh communities could be exposed to people that are from lockdown areas in north-west England – a potentially real health risk rather than a cheap jibe – that risks destroying these communities that are only now starting to recover from the pandemic’s significant socio-economic effects.
And the blame game for a melting pot of chaos has already started: Jim Jones has said that recent scenes were caused by inaction by political leaders, while politicians from across Wales and Westminster blame each other. Far from political point scoring, we require real leadership.
Our Prime Minister could, for instance, convene an urgent meeting with the devolved administrations to agree how best to manage responsible tourism during a global pandemic. Our Welsh government could also look again at its policy on face coverings too, which has the potential to ensure we stop transmission of the virus between communities across Wales and the UK. Sadly, both seem unlikely during the crucial summer months.
But what is surely achievable in the immediate term is for local authorities to police current coronavirus restrictions more stringently and effectively. After all, visitors to beauty spots such as the Gower would have been as shocked as I was this weekend by the sheer absence of authority to enforce distancing rules that were broken repeatedly. Although we did have helpful signs to remind us to keep our distance in the sunflower fields.
It is fair to acknowledge that overbearing local areas are a mainstay of the Welsh tourist economy. But that doesn’t make it acceptable or excusable. Our communities should not be treated solely as holiday homes: more importantly, they are the cradles of an historical language and breath-taking nature. Both should be respected by visitors, no matter where they are from, and recent attacks on Welsh culture has shown why that is more important than ever.
Tourism has been an important part of Welsh and British national life for more than a century. But now, when the stakes are so high, the Welsh and British government should recognise that it is has failed to protect local communities over recent weeks. Tragically, only time will tell the true impact of such a blasé and risky strategy that is encapsulated by B-list marketing slogans including Rishi’s “Eat Out to Help Out” and Boris’ “Staycation Summer”. Communities in Wales need real action. And fast.