Stuck in the tourist trap

Like Christmas, the summer break has traditionally been a period of family tension. It’s time for the tourist industry to update its image, says Janice Kirkpatrick.

There’s no more snow. Birds are building nests. The clocks have gone forward. The Great British Summer Time has allegedly begun.

I have fond holiday memories of huge family arguments. My parents fought each other over routes and who’s bloody idea it was anyway. My brother and I fought the dog over who got space in the back seat through endless miles of traffic jams in the sweltering heat of Cheddar Gorge or the driving rain along Loch Lomond’s littered banks. We were made miserable by inedible food and lousy lodgings. We whinged at each other, but no one outwardly complained. I still wonder how many otherwise happy marriages have failed as a result of the British tourist industry’s lack of industry in the two-week summer break? Why else would we talk of summer “break” other than in the context of a breakdown of civilisation?

The sad thing is that very little has changed since my childhood holidays. When the “closed until 1 April” sign comes down from gift shops and hotels, the single-track trunk roads become congested with comatose drivers and crappy caravans. Sprite, Monza, Sprite, Monza. As Britain’s tourist machinery creaks and groans into predictably reluctant inactivity, roadside cafés the country over pull off dusty gingham drapes and fire up last year’s fat. Pipes of Pan piped music stews soporifically alongside carcinogenic coffee, ugly food and bad tempers.

Behind plastic facias, craft shops peddle the same tourist tat. Welsh lace is changed to Irish green or Scottish tartan. Glitzy, glossy postcards boast the same blue sky, green grass and brown buildings. Everyone flogs the same yellow ice cream. The same pink and white rock with the same typography but different names running through. “My Dad went to London/Brighton/Edinburgh and all he brought me back was this lousy T-shirt”. Or that mug or that bloody tea towel. We don’t really like being a service economy, do we?

Why do tourist organisations champion crown and star rating systems for hotels which ensure there’s a colour TV in every room and wall-to-wall Axminster carpet but don’t promote quality in anything and fail to innovate?

Why does British tourism market itself according to simplistic lifestyle types like the “over-fifties” or “traditional families” with mum, dad, two blonde-haired kids and a Labrador or only offer boozy stag-night shag-fests for the 18-30s? Demographics are changing like never before and my hunch is that tourism could learn from retailing where “fragmentation”, “niche” and “flexibility” are watchwords presenting lucrative opportunities.

And why do tourist boards fail to market obvious urban destinations like the great club and food lands of London, Manchester and Glasgow to the 20- and 30-somethings with cash to spend. Whatever happened to the pink pound? Are tourist boards scared of the dark? If they are it’s an unforgivable shame because twilight Britain has some of the best music and clubs on earth.

As tourism becomes a growing element in our economy, tourist boards must help “operators” to offer more complex and challenging experiences than the standard “city break” with London’s Oxford Street and Madame Tussaud’s or “autumn gold” rambles through the domesticated countryside. What possible point is there in touring Scottish distilleries when you can’t drink and drive and the conglomerates which own them are closing them down by the dozen?

In 30 years the tourist experience in Britain has not altered while every other facet of life has changed beyond recognition. We now take more money from visitors but give them less in return.

The time has come to innovate and create more robust, authentic and contemporary experiences for holiday-makers. Just as Tony Blair is championing a brave new Britannia, the tourist industry should start to look to the future and rely less on a tired and diminishing stock of heritage knick-knacks. If the tourist industry won’t take a lead in reinventing its future designers should.

Just as the Design Council is involved in assessing the contemporary mood in Britain, could it not also help lead change in the goods and services associated with the tourism industries? Think about it – no crappy cards, crappy crafts, crappy tourist shops with crappy products, crappy music, crappy tea shops and awful hotels staffed by grudging amateurs…

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