The South Downs National Park: Applying Best Management Practice
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The recently designated South Downs National Park introduces a ‘new’ holiday destination in the UK, providing a rare opportunity to develop a new sustainable tourism product. All National Parks are unique in their make-up and their challenges to manage and develop tourism, and the South Downs is no exception. Roger Budden, a sustainable tourism consultant, examines the issues that will need to be addressed and illustrates potential solutions through existing best practice. The opportunities for building a vibrant, responsible, high-quality visitor destination are highlighted, together with the most effective ways of making this achievable. This informative article provides guidance on ways of working for destinations and operators that can be applied to all National Parks.
The National Park Authority picks up the management reins for the recently designated South Downs National Park this month (April 2010), and will be fully operational by April 2011. It becomes the fifteenth National Park in the UK.
The designation introduces a ‘new’ holiday destination to the marketplace. Whilst the South Downs are not new, they have always been a place people have visited. Up until now, however, the perception and knowledge of the Downs as a holiday destination, their extent, character, and environment, and the projection of the area as a whole as a visitor destination has been relatively muted. People have visited well-known places or sites within the area such as Lewes, Chichester, Arundel, the Seven Sisters, and Devil’s Dyke, but have not, in large numbers, considered the South Downs as a recognised leisure destination.
Research in 2003/04 into public perception of holiday destinations in the south east by Tourism South East (TSE)  showed that the South Downs had a very low spontaneous recall amongst domestic consumers. It also showed that the designation of National Park status amongst those that were unaware of the area would be a significant motivating factor for a potential visit, communicating the impression of a beautiful area with good access for the general public.
The TSE research strongly suggested that setting-up a South Downs National Park would create a new holiday destination in many potential consumers’ minds bringing a public focus and awareness to the area. Arguably, it is the first ‘new’ destination to appear in the region since the establishment of the big resort towns in Edwardian times.
The New Forest, while it was given National Park status in 2005, was already a well established and much used destination with a high public profile. The designation did not significantly add to the Forest’s already strong appeal or generate the kind of tourism development and marketing issues and opportunities on the scale that the South Downs designation does.
What will the impact be? That does depend to a large extent on how the National Park and its local authority and industry partners work together to manage and promote the area. It is an opportunity to:
- learn from other destinations
- take on best practice and apply it to the management and development of the tourism and recreation offer
- balance the demands of the consumer and the economic benefit they bring with the need to foster and conserve the amenity, environment, heritage and social capital of the South Downs.
All National Parks are unique in their make-up. The South Downs has some particular characteristics that add to the challenge of managing and developing tourism, as outlined below.
- They stretch for 100 miles east to west across three different counties (Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex) and 12 different district or unitary councils with a distinctly different feel to the landscape at the two ends – the large eastern end has open field systems close to the sea, the western end a more wooded and enclosed area, topographically complex.
- 85% of the Downs is actively cultivated farmland – a higher percentage than other National Parks – posing potential conflict between landowners and visitors who may expect unfettered access to National Park areas.
- There are three relatively large towns within the Park boundary – Lewes, Midhurst and Petersfield. In tourism terms this could be an advantage, allowing their development as key gateway sites, but there will be a strong impetus not to significantly affect the host community and the ambience and quality of the existing townscapes.
- There are 108,000 people living within the new National Park boundary, more than any other National Park, and the area is within easy reach of a very large number of potential visitors from the large resort towns on the coast – Brighton, Worthing and Eastbourne – the Portsmouth/Southampton conurbation and, of course London, the southern boroughs of which are within an hour of the Downs.
All these factors will come into play in shaping a future for responsible tourism in the Downs.
Opposition to the Park designation included genuine concerns about the impact that increased visitor numbers would have on the landscape and the lives and work patterns of those resident in the area. There is no doubt that the new National Park will raise public awareness and visits to the area, however this will hopefully have a positive impact.
The challenge is to consider all that has been learnt over the last ten to 15 years about destination management and tourism product development in protected landscapes and apply it to the Downs. This will ensure that the economic benefits of the designation are realised and that potential problems are managed out.
Fortunately, the National Park is not starting with a blank slate or from a position of ignorance. The Downs have been managed as two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) since the 1960s. The AONB teams have taken initiatives and actions to both encourage and manage the current numbers of visitors.
In 2004, supported by the Countryside Agency, the two AONB’s undertook a comprehensive visitor survey  that showed the Downs received 39 million visitors a year. The interesting feature was that of all those visitors only 4% (1.56 million) were staying in the Downs area and 22% (8.6 million) were day visitors from a holiday base. The overwhelming majority of 74% (28.8 million) were day visitors from homes within or close to the Downs; they were recreational users rather than visitors who could be defined as ‘tourists’.
The survey identified a total of 289 accommodation providers, 59 visitor attractions, and 280 food/drink outlets across the Downs, with average room occupancy for serviced accommodation at 58%, and 63% for self-catering unit occupancy.
Average spend figures were low at an average of £13.70 – a result of the high number of recreational day visitors from home. Staying visitors spent an estimated £85 per visit. Total visitor spend per annum was estimated at £333 million.
These figures suggest that there are opportunities to increase the number of staying visitors to the Downs. Building on raised public awareness of the National Park designation, spare capacity within the serviced and non-serviced accommodation sectors can be taken up and the amount of money visitors spend in the local economy can be increased. Doubling the number of staying visitors would result in an additional 1.5 million visits – spread across the Park this will have a marginal impact on the total number of people coming to the area, but an additional economic benefit of around £127.5 million per annum.
Virtually all rural areas identified as visitor destinations come under pressure to restrict the number of tourists, particularly from those people living within the area. In many cases this can simply be ‘nimbyism’ and it is important to distinguish between real concerns about the impact of visitors to an area from the desire by residents to ‘pull up the drawbridge’.
Within the Downs and its new status as a National Park there are three key issues in tourism development and marketing terms that will need to be addressed:
- managing the impact of increased numbers of day visitors and their impact at ‘honey-pot’ sites
- avoiding conflict between visitors and landowners
- establishing a coherent, consumer-facing destination marketing and information service.
As part of the family of National Parks, the South Downs Authority will have a wealth of information and examples to draw on where issues such as these have been encountered and actions taken to ameliorate the problems.
With the exception of local residents taking a walk, or using the Downs for regular recreation, there is a propensity for leisure day visitors to be drawn to honey-pot sites where relatively small increases in visitor numbers could have a large impact on the environment and the host communities. As the 2004 survey figures  show, the vast majority of visitors to the Downs are day visitors from home, 87% of which travel by car; 79% of day visitors on holiday also arrive by car.
Several of the key challenges are outlined below.
This is likely to fall into two main areas.
1. Maximising the use of rail routes
The South Downs is well served by mainline rail services from London and the south coast. The existing AONBs currently work with rail companies to encourage visitors from the large urban areas around the Downs (including London) to use the network through joint rail and bus ticketing. These programmes will need to be developed further through the improvement of visitor facilities and information at rail heads, and the provision of well managed and signed footpaths and cycle routes that can take passengers into the countryside.
There are some good examples from within the region of protected landscapes working with rail companies to encourage day trips by rail. The Surrey Hills and Kent Downs AONBs both have well established campaigns for trips to attractions and informal recreation activities within their areas. And within the South Downs the ‘Trails by Rail’ leaflets promote walks to the Downs from urban areas that can be accessed by rail.
One key issue that will need to be addressed is the unwillingness of rail companies to allow bicycles on their services at any significant scale. Restrictions on peak travel and a lack of space in carriages when bikes are allowed to be carried, could be a major barrier to encouraging a greater number of cyclists.
2. Creating established bus services
Accommodation providers in south coast resorts already use the Downs, and the opportunity for day trips into the countryside, as a draw for visitors. Day trips from holiday bases on the south coast are likely to increase for two reasons: because of the higher profile of the National Park; and because visitors wanting to enjoy the Downs are likely to stay in lower-cost accommodation on the edge of the Park in coast resorts. Providing access via bus from main south coast towns to popular sites will be a positive way of improving access for these visitors and reducing car trips.
There are already good examples in operation in the Downs, for example, the ‘Breeze up to the Downs’ services, ‘Take the Bus for a Walk Campaign’ and the promotion of ‘Rover’ bus tickets. These will need to be secured and developed, and accommodation providers brought into partnership to help promote the services to their guests if the take-up is to be significant.
Regardless of how visitors arrive there are one or two sites within the Downs (Devil’s Dyke, Alfriston and the Seven Sisters Country Park, Harting Down) that are currently under pressure from visitor numbers and action is likely to be required to ensure that the host community or the environment at these sites do not suffer any more pressure.
The National Park Authority will need to take a lead from places that have experience of dealing with visitor pressure and work with local communities to create effective forums where problems can be aired and discussed with local residents and solutions found.
Innovative traffic management schemes to reduce the impact of car- and coach-borne visitors, parking charges where the revenues are returned to the community, and understanding the dynamics of visitor movements and behaviours are all well-used techniques to help manage the impact.
Farmers who operate on the Downs have concerns that increased visitor numbers will add to the conflicts between recreation users and their management of the landscape. These boil down to three main concerns:
- livestock lost to dog attacks
- field gates left open for livestock to escape
- and walkers straying off rights of way and damaging crops.
Whilst, overall, the scale of the problems may be more one of perception rather than reality, there is no doubt that farmers do experience problems in areas of high visitor use.
The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is one example where a National Park has been active in using rangers to inform visitors of the problems and to educate them in the best way to behave.
The New Forest has developed an Interpretation and Education Strategy in partnership with local interests and has produced a series of information leaflets ‘Codes of Conduct’ for cyclists, horse riders, dog owners and recreation users aimed at encouraging more responsible behaviour . The advice for dog owners was based on the excellent work undertaken by the Forestry Commission and the Kennel Club who produced guidelines on how best to approach and influence dog owners .
Landowner interests on the National Park Board and in advisory committees should be brought into this process to ensure solutions are shared and that the farmers, who play a key role in managing the landscape for the enjoyment of visitors, are comfortable with the actions taken.
In terms of destination management this is one of the key challenges. Initially the Authority will need to decide if it wants to take a strong role in tourism development and marketing or create positive working relationships with partner authorities taking a lead. In either case the aim will be to get the balance right between the following:
- providing easily accessible and useful information for visitors
- supporting tourism and hospitality businesses in the National Park
- spreading the visitor load geographically across the Downs and across the seasons
- maximising the resources invested by public bodies.
This will require shared strategies and objectives, shared marketing platforms and shared information services.
Examples of clear, focussed, customer-facing partnership management of destinations that cover a number of local authorities and/or public agencies have not been easy to find in the past. Good examples have emerged over recent years, many of which are based in National Parks based around their strong countryside brand. These include Brecon Beacons and the North York Moors.
It is to be hoped that the strength of the South Downs National Park brand will be sufficient to draw partners together to act in tandem. There are already positive signs that this may be the case, but the National Park Authority will need to address local authority and business concerns about the establishment of yet another layer of destination management, marketing and information laid over current structures which have seen significant investment in recent years in new DMS platforms.
It is a crowded and complicated picture with 15 local authorities having varying proportions of their area in the Downs, and facing expectations from businesses to use that to their competitive advantage. There is not a town in or around the National Park that does not see itself at this moment as the ‘Gateway to the Downs’.
The National Park Authority will need to build on the good work done to date by the AONBs. They will need to produce a strategy for the visitor economy as a matter of priority to define their role, to ensure that the Park ‘brand’ and the core marketing values are embedded in a partnership network, and that clear plans for the future are set out and shared.
The control of development and planning has been the subject of much debate in the run-up to the Park’s designation. The National Park Authority can take on planning powers if it chooses to do so, or agree agency arrangements with their local authority partners who, up until April 2010, have been carrying out this role.
This is less of an issue for tourism development as the industry has been operating within a Protected Landscape environment for many years and has grown up and adapted to market demand in a manner appropriate to an AONB designation which, in planning terms, is effectively the same as that of a National Park.
There are questions about how the new Authority, or its agency partners, will deal with the potential demand for increased development to cater for increased visitor interest in the Downs. This is essentially a matter of consistent planning policy, building on past practice, to allow appropriate development that lets the tourism economy grow at a scale and volume that does not threaten the landscape and amenity that draws visitors in the first place.
Tourism development should not be allowed to grow unfettered in complex and fragile environments like the Downs, and current and past planning policies have been developed to balance development demand with landscape and amenity conservation.
The designation also brings real opportunities to use the National Park to build a vibrant, responsible, high-quality visitor destination that brings benefits to the Downs economy. Three areas are important in this respect.
- Business engagement and involvement
- Public education and involvement
- Appropriate development
Businesses in and around the Downs are enthusiastic about the designation, seeing opportunities to increase visitor numbers and occupancy. This high level of interest can be used to establish a rapport with the large number of the small and micro businesses that make up the sector and who have, in the past, been difficult to engage with on a significant scale because they are detached.
This includes food and drink establishments – pubs, restaurants and cafes – that make up an important part of the visitor offer but who have, in the past, been detached from destination management structures. Work to engage local business has taken place in the past and is currently being managed through the AONB’s involvement in the Interreg IVb project ‘Collabor8’.
Experience shows that agreeing partnership plans for engagement with trusted agencies such as local authorities, Tourism South East, chambers of commerce and County Food Groups works best in drawing in a diversity of establishments. Strong business engagement opens the way for developing a range of beneficial programmes and activities that could be used to create a sustainable tourism destination. These include developing the following.
- A visitor payback scheme: already a successful scheme in the Lake District, it shows that active business involvement is an essential pre-requisite to building and maintaining an effective visitor payback scheme.
- A positive sense of local distinctiveness: the Sense of Place scheme in the Forest of Bowland and Get to Know Your North Pennines show that inventive programmes can instil in businesses an understanding, appreciation and willingness to pass on their knowledge of the area to visitors. This is a key element in providing information about the Downs and its heritage, environment and management to the public and creating a destination that is distinct and memorable, with its own character and charm.
- Involvement in local supply chains: working with hospitality businesses offers the opportunity to create links between local producers and service suppliers, and to ensure that more of the visitor spend is retained within the Downs economy.
- A stronger appreciation of the need to operate sustainably: take-up of green business accreditation in the Downs has been positive, but there are many more businesses who do not engage. The designation focuses attention on the need to conserve resources in the Downs (particularly water) and encourages low impact visitor behaviour. It also encourages more businesses into green schemes.
Clearly, the National Park designation will raise public awareness of the Downs and help the process of informing visitors about their special qualities, and the need to manage and conserve them. Research into social trends indicates that more people are seeking to use their leisure time as a learning experience .
The rise in breaks where visitors contribute voluntary work is a good example of this trend. Opportunities to link with BTCV, the Downs own Voluntary Ranger Service, the Wildlife Trusts, and English Heritage for example, to create leisure opportunities that go beyond informal recreation, should be grasped by businesses looking to build on the designation.
This trend towards leisure as a learning experience emerges in the increasing provision of information. The Brecks in the East of England, a very rural area with a distinct countryside and heritage, is a good example of the production of visitor-orientated information that aims to inform and educate visitors about the landscape, heritage, topography and wildlife of the area.
National Parks cannot be monuments to the past. There must be the opportunity for leisure and hospitality businesses to develop and grow in response to market trends. Planning controls should ensure that any development is appropriate and in scale, but the designation does offer opportunities for a growth in the visitor economy.
There are gaps in the provision of accommodation along the South Downs Way for walkers and horse riders seeking to stable horses. The number of caravan and campsites is limited at a time when the sector is booming. The growing involvement in active recreation – mountain biking, grass boarding, para-gliding – all of which take place within the Downs to varying extents at the moment – can bring younger, previously excluded groups into the landscape. If this positive direction is to be maintained then an appropriate infrastructure needs to be provided that caters for their needs, without conflicting with more traditional recreation pursuits or landscape amenity.
The South Downs National Park is the first ‘new’ destination in the South East to be brought to the visitor market place for some considerable time. There are opportunities to build a sustainable tourism product based on what has been learnt in other areas.
In the last ten years the discipline of destination management has developed and grown to the point where there is a body of best practice and some tried and tested programmes for development and marketing. That is not to say that every size fits all, and the South Downs faces some unique issues and management problems, as well as the more typical barriers to success most destination managers have faced at some point in time – local politics, business apathy, lack of funds, too many unfocussed strategic objectives.
For those who work in destination management, the establishment of the new National Park, how it grows in partnership with existing local authority, sub-regional development programmes and marketing platforms, how it engages with businesses, how it absorbs and manages the potential increase in visitors, and how it accommodates new trends in recreational activity will be a fascinating exercise in building and positioning a rural destination in real time.
The new South Downs Authority will have to decide its role in the management of the destination, working closely with the local authorities. The shadow staff, and the existing AONB teams have the knowledge, background, and access to best practice that will advise the Authority and guide its decision. If it works then there is the opportunity to create a fresh, clearly directed destination that takes its partners along in a shared strategy to build a sustainable tourism offer that matches both the changing trends in visitor behaviour and the ambitions for National Parks in the 21st century.
- Tourism South East. Brand Development Research. Jackson Research Associates/Senior King
- Tourism South East Research Services/Geoff Broom Associates. Visitor Survey of the Proposed South Downs National Park
- National Parks Authority. www.nationalparks.gov.uk
- Stephen Jenkinson & Paddy Harrop. Managing Dogs in the Wood. March 2007 www.forestry.gov.uk/england-dogs
- England Research. What is the Future of Domestic Tourism to 2015? November 2005.
Roger has recently left Tourism South East to set up his own consultancy company Real Places Ltd. After completing a degree in Geography at Birmingham University Roger joined the Greater London Council and worked in transport and planning and as an adviser to the Transport Chairman. When the GLC was abolished he worked for Oxford and Carlisle City Councils in tourism, marketing and economic development before moving to Chichester to work as Tourism Manager for West Sussex County Council. During that time he was a Director of the SE England Tourist Board and Chairman of the Tourism Officers Forum.
He managed a 2-year project for SEEDA, TSE and the Countryside Agency developing sustainable tourism programmes in the region’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty before moving to Tourism South East where he led the development team working on a range of programmes aimed at helping the industry to grow as a sustainable asset to the region. He served as the Countryside Agencies national tourism adviser and held a seat on the South East Rural Partnership.
He is the consultant editor for the Destination Manager's Toolkit and contributed on the structure of Tourism, accessibility, sustainability and Industry relations.