Survey of South West MPs and Tourism
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This study is an attempt to replicate a similar study undertaken in North Carolina where state legislators were questioned about their knowledge of, attitudes to, and perceptions of the tourism industry in their region. In addition, the present study assesses South West MPs' perceptions of the impact that the London 2012 Olympic Games might have on the tourism industry in the South West.
The South West of England has a well-established and successful tourism industry with varied landscapes, offering a wide range of holiday experiences from the traditional seaside bucket and spade breaks, to sailing, climbing, walking, sightseeing and much more. South West Tourism’s research  (2006 figures) suggests that tourism and tourist activity:
- adds nearly £9billion to the region's economy
- employs 176,438 people (FTEs, full-time equivalents) both directly and indirectly (an estimated 10% of the population).
Therefore it would seem sensible to suggest in a region highly dependent on tourism for its economic survival that MPs, the elected representatives of those living in the area, should have an accurate knowledge of and positive attitudes towards the industry.
Is it important that South West MPs are well informed about the significance of the tourism industry to the region? Surely it is enough that tourism appears to be successful in its own right without the need for political intervention? In fact, the tourism sector needs support every bit as much as any other sector.
The impact that Foot and Mouth Disease had on the tourist industry is just one example of this. This is especially true for small and medium tourism enterprises (SMTEs) who are vulnerable to even slight fluctuations in the market. Therefore it is hugely important that elected representatives, as the interface between the public and government, are well informed in order to garner support for the industry.
A review of the history and background of the Government’s involvement in tourism planning and policy illustrates why the relationship between MPs and the tourism industry is so important to the future of the industry. Policy making and planning in England has evolved over the past decades, partly due to the changing political ethos, in so much as power has moved from central government to a position where collaborative policy making is the norm. Collaborative policy making attempts to draw all the interested parties together to develop policy that best represents the needs of a sector .
Where tourism policy is concerned, the interested parties range from the individual, such as a B&B owner, to the local, regional, national and international agencies. All these stakeholders have a vested interest in ensuring that tourism policy and planning issues address their own interests . MPs have a crucial part to play in this process, as they are a key interface between those on the ground working within the tourism industry and government that has the power to actively support and promote the industry.
Within the academic tourism literature there is a plethora of studies that have attempted to examine the policy-making process, either by focussing on particular aspects of the process or by attempting to examine who or what influences the whole process. The study considered here took the former course, choosing to focus on a specific, but vital, aspect of the policy process, that of how much MPs really understand and know about the tourism industry in their region.
This study is an attempt to replicate a similar study undertaken in North Carolina where state legislators were questioned about their knowledge of, attitudes to, and perceptions of the tourism industry in their region . In addition, the present study assesses South West England’s MPs' perceptions of the impact that the London 2012 Olympic Games might have on the tourism industry in the South West. This issue was felt to be particularly pertinent at the current time as the Government is portraying the Games as an opportunity to showcase the UK as an international tourist destination.
The study identified the 51 Members of Parliament whose constituencies make up the political region of the South West of England. Each of these MPs were sent a postal questionnaire that contained a series of closed response questions regarding their knowledge and perceptions of the tourism industry and the likely impact of the London 2012 Olympic Games on tourism. Finally, the questionnaire also contained a series of open-ended questions in which the MPs were able to freely note their personal experiences of interacting with the industry.
This study was not without its limitations. The sample was rather small, which meant that detailed and meaningful statistical analysis was not possible and the planned detailed in depth interviews could not be undertaken as the MPs who were contacted declined the opportunity to participate. This point perhaps demonstrates one of the most difficult aspects of trying to carry out a study with MPs as many make it a rule to not participate in any sort of study however worthy its intentions. As one MP stated:
'You may find that many MPs are reluctant to do questionnaires as the information is often used against them at a later date; such is how life has developed in this country.'
Of the 51 South West MPs asked to take part in the study, 15 actively declined to take part, 8 did not respond while 29 MPs chose to return the questionnaire.
The first series of questions pertained to the impact of tourism on the South West economy. The MPs were asked:
- how much they believed tourism in the South West to be worth
- how many people are employed directly and indirectly by tourism and tourism-related jobs
- how many trips are made by domestic and international visitors to the region each year.
The rationale behind asking these sorts of questions was the assumption that South West MPs would be aware of the economic significance of tourism to the region and therefore would probably come into contact with the official statistics on a regular basis when representing their constituents. The MPs were required to choose from a list of possible answers the one that they thought represented the correct answer.
- With regard to knowledge of the economic value of tourism to the South West’s economy, only one-third of respondents knew how much tourism is worth in terms of economic revenue to the South West’s economy; the majority underestimated its worth.
- When asked to state how much employment is attributed to tourism, just under half chose the correct answer.
- When asked to estimate the number of trips made by domestic and overseas visitors to the South West, they consistently underestimated the popularity of the South West as a tourist destination.
In the following section of the study, the MPs were asked to rank in order of importance 10 key objectives for tourism in the South West .
- Out of the 10 possible objectives to improve tourism in the region the majority believe that improving transport links to the region should be the number one priority for the region’s tourism industry.
- Respondents believe that tourism needs to improve the quality and standards of service offered to visitors to the region and they placed this objective in second place.
- The third objective is to improve the skills through training of those working in tourism thus addressing objective number two.
- The fourth objective is to protect and preserve the environment in the region.
- SMTEs are the dominant sector of the tourism industry in the South West and respondents believe that supporting these businesses should be the fifth most important objective for the industry.
Increasing promotion of the area to overseas visitors, increasing funding to support tourism and improving the quality of life for local people through tourism were ranked in sixth, seventh and eighth place. The least popular objectives were the need to increase facilities to enable e-tourism and to encourage business tourism to the region.
The next section of the study focussed on analysing respondents' perceptions and attitudes towards the tourism industry in the region. The idea behind this exploration was to discover whether MPs hold positive perceptions of the industry in terms of the revenue and employment it generates for the region.
The majority of respondents think that tourism is extremely important to the economy of the South West and in terms of revenue generated and the employment sustained by the industry.
However, perceptions of the organisational structure, professional image, skill levels and wages of those employed in the tourism industry tend to be more negative. There is unanimous agreement that the tourism industry is not successful in gaining governmental support and needs to be better organised in order to garner support for tourism issues. There was also agreement that tourism is a low priority for governmental support.
It is also agreed that the tourism industry has a less professional image as compared to other industries. As a result, people working within tourism are paid below-average wages and have lower skills levels compared to workers in other sectors.
The open-ended section of the study built upon the themes dealt with in the previous section and encouraged participants to explain their direct experience of the tourism industry. They were asked who they were most likely to contact should they need information regarding tourism in their area.
Most name a selection of regional and national agencies, such as South West Tourism, South West Regional Development Agency, local tourism officers. The subjects they are most likely to contact these agencies for are information about official tourism statistics.
On the other hand, they report being contacted by any number of representatives from the supply side of the tourism industry such as B&B owners, hotel associations, etc. Interestingly, a number of respondents report having never been contacted by anyone from the tourism industry.
The MPs were also asked to state ways in which the tourism industry might have a more effective voice with government. They identify a number of negative aspects of the industry that they believe are hindering the way government perceives the sector.
The list of hindrances include problems with unreliable statistics that often contradict the true worth of tourism, meaning that governmental support cannot be justified, and that the industry is ‘too fragmented’ and ‘poorly organised’ to represent itself adequately with government over important issues.
In answer to these key issues, there are four key areas suggested that could address the problems associated with the sector and improve its standing with government.
- Direct lobbying of MPs so that they can see the issues first hand, in order to represent them effectively.
- Developing constructive relationships with officials and pooling resources in order to reach higher levels of government; this includes the funding of lobbying and finding an appropriate ambassador for tourism.
- Establishment of sound statistics showing the economic worth of tourism.
- Identification of key tourism issues that need addressing, such as VAT, double summer-time, visas, etc.
The hosting of the London 2012 Games is purported to be excellent opportunity for the country to showcase all it has to offer to international visitors in all regions. Therefore the study asked South West MPs how they perceived the potential impact of the London 2012 Games on the region’s tourism industry. For example, did they believe, as the rhetoric produced by the Government states, that tourism would be boosted in the South West as a result of London hosting the Games?
Respondents appear to be particularly unconvinced that the Games would offer any benefit to the region's tourism industry, in terms of increasing tourism-related employment, increasing the region’s international profile, generating additional tourism revenue and driving up standards of quality and service in tourism businesses . The majority of responses in this section of the questionnaire tend to either disagree or remain neutral on the potential positive impact of the London 2012 Games.
Generally speaking, the majority of respondents think that tourism is extremely important to the economy of the South West, in terms of revenue generated and the employment sustained by the industry. Therefore this suggests that MPs appreciate that tourism is a key economic activity in the region.
However, the survey does indicate there is room for improvement - it demonstrates the intrinsic problems associated with the tourism industry in that whilst the industry is extremely important to the economy of the South West, it remains unable to represent itself adequately to Government. Governmental support is vital to sustaining a vibrant tourism industry, but as this study shows, the lack of coherence and professionalism often means that the needs and issues concerning tourism are overlooked by Government.
The MPs who took part in this study believe that the tourism industry needs to work together fully and speak with a consistent representative voice on the key issues that affect tourism in the region. They also feel there is a need for a dedicated Minister for Tourism who can take these key issues and liaise with and across other relevant government departments.
Creating coherence amongst the tourism industry could also be spread to South West Members of Parliament, as it appeared from the data gathered that many MPs tended to only consider issues within their own constituency rather than considering the regional effect of tourism.
These results suggest that South West MPs do not have particularly accurate statistical knowledge or information regarding the economic impact of tourism in South West England. Therefore there is a need, if tourism is to be recognised as being of value in terms of revenue generation and the employment it creates for the South West, for MPs to be better informed.
Participants believe that improving transport links to the region should be the number one priority for the region’s tourism industry. These results are perhaps not particularly surprising. Even though the region is the second most regularly visited region after London, links via public transport are unreliable, roads in and out of the region are inadequate to cope with the high volume of visitors.
Whilst the region boasts three regional airports, the services are often limited and onward road and rail linkages to other destinations in the South West are extremely poor. Survey respondents are probably most aware of this situation as they experience directly the problems associated with poor transport links.
The MPs interviewed place the protection and preservation the environment in the region in fourth position in order of importance. This reflects both an acceptance of the fact that much tourism activity in the South West is a result of visitors wanting to experience the unique environment of the area, and that tourism does have an effect on the environment and if tourism is to flourish in the future then the environment needs to be protected now.
With respect to London 2012 Olympics, there is uncertainty as to whether the Games would provide any benefit to tourism in the region. If Members of Parliament do not have confidence that the Olympics will create a lasting legacy, how can anyone else be expected to? This position is further exacerbated by the government’s reduction in funding for VisitBritain, whose job it is to market the UK as an international tourism destination.
It appears therefore that there is some way to go before even Members of Parliament are convinced of the long term tourism benefits offered by hosting the Games.
This explorative study provides a call to action for the tourism industry. It cannot remain complacent - even established tourism dominated areas such as the South West need to pull together, accept the merit of collecting reliable statistics equating economic worth, lobby their MPs directly, let them see the issues that affect them on a day-to-day basis, and create a coherent representation of the realities of operating a tourism business.
- South West Tourism research into the economic value of tourism. 2006
- Miller G. A. & Ritchie B W. 'A Farming Crisis or a Tourism Disaster. An Analysis of Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK'. Current Issues in Tourism 6 (2) 151-171. 2003
- Jamal, T. B. & Getz, D. ‘Collaboration theory and community tourism planning’. Annals of Tourism Research, 22: 186-204. 1995
- Reed, M. G. ‘Power relations and community-based tourism planning.’ Annals of Tourism Research, 24(3) 566-591. 1997
- McGeHee, N. G. & Meng, F. 'The Politics of Perception: Legislative Images of the Tourism Industry in Virginia and North Carolina'. Journal of Travel Research, 44: 368-378. 2006
- Objectives based on those used in by South West Tourism and other national tourism agencies. South West Tourism. http://www.swtourism.co.uk/home.ashx. (accessed 30 April, 2008)
- Doolin, Burgess & Cooper. 'Evaluating the use of the Web for tourism marketing: a case study from New Zealand'. Tourism Management, 23: 557-561. 2002
- Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Winning: A Tourism Strategy for 2012 and beyond. 2007. London: HMSO. Issues based on those presented as objectives by Team South West.
South West Regional Development Agency: Team South West. http://download.southwestrda.org.uk/file.asp?File=/investment-promotion/general/TeamSW-Legacy-Strate (accessed June 2008)
Julie Wooler BA (Hons) MSc returned to full-time education as a mature student in 2004. After completing a degree in Psychology from the University of Exeter, she undertook a Masters Degree in Tourism Development and Policy also with the University of Exeter. As part of the MSc she undertook a dissertation exploring South West MPs' perceptions and knowledge of the tourist industry, and the potential impact of the London 2012 Olympic Games on the region's tourism industry.
She is currently employed by Somerset County Council assisting with the implementation of the Visit Somerset Project and is hoping to return to University in 2009 to undertake a PhD.
Areas of interest include tourism policy flows, especially conflict and power relations within the new Destination Management Organisations. Julie is also interested in mapping the potential of working industrial sites as 'sustainable' tourist attractions.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org