SatNav – no substitute for maps or real facts

IF you are a delivery or taxi driver, you probably rely on SatNav – the satellite navigation system in your vehicle makes it easier to negotiate the maze of one-way systems and complicated housing estates in urban areas or to locate remote farms or settlements in the countryside.

It is undoubtedly an efficient means of navigating the quickest route from Point A to Point B. What it won’t do is tell you about the picturesque village just a couple of miles off the road, the glorious church, the farm shop, the theatre, the pub, the scenic drive or the great view.

It will not encourage you to stray off the chosen path – and in the unfortunate event of an accident or road works or floods (plenty of those blocking roads recently), you will be lost, and your SatNav may not help. SatNavs can get confused by places that have the same name but are miles apart. You have to ask the right questions to get the right information. A friend who was supposed to be driving to Ansty, a village on Bulbarrow hill in the middle of Dorset, ended up in Ansty, the even smaller village in south west Wiltshire. He did not know there were two, nor did he know in which county the Ansty he was supposed to be heading for was.

We love maps. Whenever we are planning to visit somewhere new – in this country or abroad – we buy books about the town or region and we get maps of the area. Using the books and maps, we plan our journeys and we look on either side of the proposed route to see if there is something we will want to visit. It could be anything from a farmers market to an arts centre, a wildlife reserve to a museum of regional geology, or it could just be a great view. And when we get there we head for a tourist information or visitor centre to find information about what’s on – plays, concerts, open air events, agricultural or country shows, market days and more.

The best tourist or visitor centres are a reflection of the town or area. If you are in the heart of a city of culture you will expect to get brochures for the galleries and museums, theatres, arts centres, alternative venues and concerts. If the visitor centre is in a national park or landscape area, you will want to know about the topography, geology and plants and wildlife of the area. If you want some retail therapy, you will want town maps, plans of malls, leaflets of specialist shopping areas, details of car parks and useful tips on local traffic regulations – in San Francisco your car can get towed away if you park by a yellow line on the pavement (“sidewalk”) because you have parked by a fire hydrant and that is a serious parking infringement; you can also get fined in some parts of California for parking too far from the kerb or for parking facing the “wrong way” even in a two-way street! You need to know these things.

Tourism provides a significant income in many areas of the world – including the West Country. It has passed farming as a major source of revenue in this region. People are drawn to Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall for many reasons, including the stunning coastline, beautiful countryside, ancient towns and cities, wonderful food and the rich and vibrant culture, art and history.

Figures from South West Tourism show that in 2008 there were 118,014,000 visits (day and staying) by visitors who spent £9.4 billion in the region. There were 198,457 full time and full time equivalent jobs, and the total number of people employed was 268,894, 11 per cent of regional employment. Figures from the national Tourism Alliance published in 2013 show total UK revenue from tourists amounted to £134 billion in 2012 (up £9 billion from 2011) with 249,000 tourism businesses employing a total of 2.72 million people.

You would think that tourism would be valued by county and district councils, which benefit substantially from the business rates paid by successful tourism businesses, from safari parks to B&Bs, and that the contribution to the regional economy would be reflected in the support given by local authorities to tourism offices and visitor centres.

Far from it.

Many district councils no longer make any contribution to TICs, which survive with funding from town or parish councils and the efforts of a handful of paid staff, supported by volunteers. At least one TIC, in a major tourism destination, has become a self-financing business requiring payment from organisations and venues wishing to display information leaflets and programmes. Many TICs operate a policy of displaying leaflets and brochures exclusively from the town or district in which they are situated.

In areas where the district council still provides funding, some tourist offices in town centres have been closed and the service moved to existing council offices, with their weekday hours, which may be easy for locals, but not helpful to visitors, particularly those from overseas.

On the positive side, some tourist offices have moved into libraries, arts centres or theatres – a sensible move, since visitors can book tickets or accommodation as well as gathering information. Others have developed a retail side with souvenirs, books, maps and local food or crafts, to bring in valuable income.

Talking to people in tourist offices across this region, you hear constant worries of funding cuts, even in busy and well-run centres where a steady stream of tourists, day visitors and locals come in to pick up information or book accommodation or tickets.

The picture is mixed but generally quite depressing. Tourism is a local success story and we have some excellent tourist offices which should be supported and helped to develop to benefit the economy locally and nationally. SatNav may get the visitors to their holiday destination but it won’t help them explore when they get there.

The phrase “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” comes to mind.

Incidentally, the Fine Times Recorder exists not only to entertain and inform people in this region who want to know what’s on at the theatre or where to find great local food – it is also a resource for visitors to the area, providing information across the region, almost a virtual TIC!

Fanny Charles