WE live in a beautiful area with few major employers, no significant manufacturing industry and the workforce in agriculture, once the backbone of rural employment, has shrunk to a farmer and his wife or maybe son or daughter, and at most one or two multi-skilled workers.
Whether we like it or not, that is the situation. And no, I don’t like it. I wish that farms could employ more people; I wish that shoes were still made in Street, that tin was still mined in Cornwall; that working boats were still built at Appledore and that there were enough affordable houses for the people who would have these jobs to live in.
And the moon is made of blue cheese and the sun always shines.
The truth, as we all now, is very different – and the driving force in the economy of this region is tourism – food, farming, culture, heritage and the environment, rock climbing and rock-pooling, walking the South West Coastal Path or sailing to the Scillies. It puts its tentacles into more pies and pasties than you could shake the proverbial Australian stick at.
Visitors spend millions of pounds at the international draws such as the Eden Project, stately homes, the SS Great Britain, Longleat and award-winning museums, and at the fun and family orientated attractions such as Pecorama in Devon, Adventure Wonderland near Christchurch or Somerset’s Wookey Hole.
Walkers, climbers, artists, fishermen, hot air balloonists and cyclists come for the landscape and the coastline – including Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Jurassic coast and the Dorset and Cranborne Chase areas of outstanding natural beauty – spending money on everything from a pint at a moorland pub to sports and outdoor equipment.
Tourism helps to support farming directly and indirectly, through farm-stay accommodation, farm shops and B&Bs, and even through the much-maligned but not always negative second homes. While some people stock up via Ocado or Waitrose before heading down to their little spot of heaven in Devon, there are many for whom the whole point of a holiday home is to feel part of the community, whether it is a drink or a game of darts in the village pub or buying their weekend food at the local market or convenience store.
Culture is a huge money-spinner, from historic house visits, tickets to the region’s theatres, seasonal open air plays, arts festivals and arts centres, purchases at artists’open studios events to the less tangible aspects such as oral history, photographic archives, traditional music, dancing and folk arts.
Food and drink nourishes the economy at every level – ultra-local through independent shops, farmers markets or farm-gate sales, locally owned pubs, beach cafes and restaurants or national chains. There is a growing number of local and national food festivals and food fairs, which attract thousands of locals and visitors. Food companies include national brands like Cornwall’s Rodda clotted cream, Devon’s Quicke’s Cheddar, Somerset Cider Brandy, Dorset Cereals and Hall & Woodhouse’s Badger beers. And there is a thriving artisan food sector, where skilled producers are making everything from brownies to buffalo burgers in farm buildings, industrial units and even domestic kitchens.
It is big money.
A South West Tourism Alliance report in 2008 found that the regional tourist industry was worth £9.4 billion – it is safe to assume that figure has risen considerably in the ensuing six years.
So why have so many tourist information centres been closed and more are under threat? Those that survive are often funded by town or parish councils or local business associations that want their money to be spent on promoting their area exclusively.
Of course, you can find a lot of information on the web – this website is a valuable source of information for visitors and locals alike – but staff and volunteers at a local information centre provide a personal service, answer specific questions, help to find the right accommodation for the visitors’ needs, act as box offices for local venues and events and through their displays of listings, leaflets for attractions and posters help to generate more sales.
Short-sighted, short-term cost-cutting could do irreparable damage to the industry that is the motor of the West Country – support your local information centre!