David Alston recognises that Wales’ physical attractions pull in most tourists but believes that exciting and innovative cultural work is well worth discovering too.

Image of performance of 'Passion'
Michael Sheen and members of the cast in ‘Passion’

Richard Hardcastle

Tourism in Wales remains a conundrum. The country’s asset base from a tourism perspective in heritage, natural landscape, activity and culture is rich beyond compare. Yet images of the country remain perplexingly hard to shift. Focus group work in the Midlands a few years ago tended to retail a view of an industrialised land of slate and slag heaps, when the picture these days is one of just how freshly green is my valley.

With such a long and porous border and the three remaining sides of the country bounded by sea and a recently completed meandering and spectacular coastal path around this perimeter, devolved Wales is gradually assembling what is termed ‘an offer’. With dramatic walking and climbing in Snowdonia in the north, Brecon Beacons in the south east and the Preseli in the west, with long beaches on the Gower or at Pendine, Wales’ tourism has looked in recent years to the outward bound with either safety helmet or bucket and spade. Day tourism and Wales’ share of it looks set to improve from its low market share from the Midlands, North West and from the M4 corridor with the advent of Premier League football in now both Cardiff and Swansea.

This means not a tailoring of cultural work to tourism’s end but a continued investment in exciting and innovative cultural work

The Welsh government through the Assembly is beginning to look at the long game again with the recent purchase of Cardiff airport in an attempt to arrest decline and find an operator which will look to an international strategy and links beyond the outbound package holiday market. Cardiff’s St David’s 2 may have upped the ante in the crucial area for destination marketers of the retail offer, but equally of long term and less capitally intensive significance, Cardiff’s Victorian Arcades and niche retail offer distinctive attractions. Out of Cardiff, market town offers have developed well, be it at Narberth or Machynlleth (with its comedy festival and long-term affiliation to a zero-carbon alternative in the Centre for Alternative Technology), and Abergavenny with a food festival that some would say is now at a sort of capacity for the enjoyment of the event. The development of locally sourced produce, and a chance to experience quality food are progressing ‘tidily’ with the support of such agencies such as Wales the True Taste. Other events are having to cope with the dilemmas of their evident success and profile, such as is the case of the Hay Festival, a brand event whose diversification strategy is to export the model from the Welsh border town to various global destinations.

Tourism promotion migrated into government with devolution and continues to be largely about promotion in targeted markets abroad. The Welsh government has looked to a loose affiliation through a cultural tourism partnership to bring key players from the private sector, ecclesiastical, heritage, arts, training providers and the regional tourism partnerships together. That group has combined, through various work packages derived from individual participants’ work programmes, to advance cultural tourism. It offers variously training and ‘product’ development. Much time has been spent on lamenting and mutual brow-beating over an inability to promote the cultural offer with more confidence through a more systemic approach, particularly via online resources. The cultural tourism partners are slowly getting across the interrelationships of different planning timescales involved in artistic programming and international promotion of the tourist offer.

I suppose my low point in this was the Easter weekend a couple of years back when looking up events and homing in to Port Talbot, the weekend of National Theatre Wales’ ground-breaking performance of ‘Passion’ with Michael Sheen, it revealed no matches to my search on the Visit Wales website. But then I reflected that it had not inhibited something like 12,000 people assembling on the beach for the climax of the piece after three days of compelling live sequences of action in a modern-day parable, people drawn from the environs and some from further afield conjoined with an online community following via the web.

We are moving from a frustration about attracting people to Wales and getting take-up via traditional promotional means, to an acceptance that the numbers of visitors whose sole motivation to visit for a specific cultural event will remain niche and will need building by organisations developing a community for their work. Our new approach is to foster a situation where culture is more pervasive an ingredient and what we are doing is saying that Wales is worth exploring, worth having confidence in, which will lead to discoveries which hopefully will make people want to return. This means not a tailoring of cultural work to tourism’s end but a continued investment in exciting and innovative cultural work which builds the sense of adventure and discovery and particularity.

In 2014 Wales will celebrate the centenary of Dylan Thomas, a lyric voice with a following around the world. A year-long festival can bring a focus to places linked to his work, but the desire across the year is to find and celebrate inspiration and innovative ways to talk about Wales and get Wales talked about. A number of events will involve global reach and live streaming, while others will build on the ‘must’ experience, the must be there sort of quality that the Laugharne Weekends have built up. Again the approach is a partnership across government, Arts Council Wales, local authorities, the BBC and the British Council. A year-long festival around a celebration and the prompts offered by Dylan Thomas’s work will have visitor targets but not the least dimension to it is to build the desire to experience Wales in the future ... and with our national companies beginning to talk of combining in some defining Festival of Place, it is a case of watch this space.

David Alston is Arts Director of Arts Council of Wales.

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