Old and new: a view of the Liver Building and the waterfront development in Liverpool
Few earthly places fit as much variety into 40,000 sq km as England’s north. From the Lake District’s fells, inspiration to Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, the lively bars of Manchester, the roar of the Gallowgate End at Newcastle United and to the Roman remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the region exudes beauty, culture and heritage.
The north has become a popular destination for city breaks and business trips and is underpinned by the government’s “Northern Powerhouse” initiative, which is spending £10m on tourism promotion and £20m on a Great Exhibition of the North.
While London captures half of the overnight stays in the UK, visitors are increasingly venturing further afield. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been ploughed into conference centres and hotels in the past decade, with a strong focus on the business tourist.
“This is one industry that is not London-centric,” claims Chris Brown, director of Marketing Liverpool. “We have world-class conference facilities, better than those in the capital. We just need to get people here.”
Mr Brown says many visitors first visit Liverpool for a conference and then return with family or friends.
The “getting people here” factor, meanwhile, is on course to become easier, with investments of more than £800m in new trains under way. This is the first stage of a £1.2m funding programme under the aegis of two new rail franchises which began this month.
According to the national tourism agency, VisitEngland, tourism is Britain’s third-biggest service export. London dominates, with 52 per cent of foreign visitors spending their nights in the capital, although the figure is 41 per cent when business travel is included. London benefits from 63 per cent of overseas tourist spending and 54 per cent when business visits are accounted for.
The relative attraction of the north, however, appears to be on the rise. In the first nine months of 2015, there were 3.3m visits to the region, up 6.4 per cent, against 4 per cent for the UK, which had 30.6m. Spending in the north increased 1.8 per cent to £639m, compared with a national drop of 1 per cent to £16.5bn.
VisitEngland and VisitBritain’s chief executive Sally Balcombe says the bodies are promoting the north internationally as a place to visit for pleasure and business: “We have been working with our colleagues across the north [with the aim of delivering] a programme of 26 projects to grow tourism in the north of England by 2m additional visitor nights, generating £177m of international visitor expenditure and creating 3,280 jobs [on an annual basis].”
The largest group of international tourists to the north in 2014 were from Ireland, with 412,000 visitors, whether to see relatives, holiday or watch sport. Germany and the US accounted for some 337,000 tourists each, with Americans spending £166m and Germans £110m. The 216,000 visiting Australians spent £153m, the most per head at £708.
Juliana Delaney, chief executive of Continuum, which runs heritage tourist attractions from its base in York, argues that the north has unique assets. “People want authenticity and that is what the north has got.”
When television’s Salford-set Coronation Street soap opera, now in its sixth decade, moved across Manchester from its original set, Continuum temporarily ran tours of the old studios and received 880,000 visitors in 18 months. Now Continuum is opening the set of ITV’s Yorkshire farming soap, Emmerdale, at weekends. The first 28,000 tickets have sold out.
A 2016 highlight is June’s International Festival of Business in Liverpool, which will showcase the city’s new £40m exhibition centre, an extension to its riverside conference centre. The three-week event has received £5m of government support. Max Steinberg, IFB 2016 chairman, says it has attracted sponsors including HSBC bank and BT, the telecoms company, and space is fully booked. The event is also due to take place in 2018 and 2020.
The festival includes a series of lectures, art exhibitions and shows curated by Jude Kelly, a Liverpudlian and artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre.
In the Liverpool city region, which covers six authorities including the Wirral, tourism accounts for £1.5bn, 7 per cent of GDP. Greater Manchester has a £7.5bn tourist industry, while Yorkshire’s is worth £7bn and expected to grow to £8bn annually by 2025.
In the north-east, in 2013 Newcastle and Gateshead hosted 15,000 conferences and external meetings, attracting some 1m delegates and adding an estimated £104m to the local economy, a 13 per cent rise since 2011.
“Corporates are starting to look outside of pricey London — a perfect opportunity to attract more conferences and events to the north of England,” says Paul Szomoru, head of business tourism at NewcastleGateshead Initiative.
Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, the area’s promotion agency, says visitor numbers have continued to grow, with 1.4m in 2014, up from 1.3m in 2013. Mr Verity is chairing the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North, which will showcase the region’s culture and businesses, especially in fields such as engineering and design. “We want to get the message out that this is one of the best places in the world to live and to pursue a career in design,” he says.
Some would like the government to do more. Katrina Michel, chief executive of Marketing Cheshire, says the £10m Northern Tourism Growth Fund could have been spent better. “We’d rather have had the money over three years than one,” Ms Michel says, to aid planning. She adds that funds go disproportionately to poorer areas, rather than those with the greatest potential to bring in money through tourism.
It has not compensated fully for public spending cuts. Welcome to Yorkshire alone received £10m annually until 2013. “Would I love to have what Visit Scotland has every year? Of course,” Mr Verity says. The devolved parliament has allocated the body £54m in 2015-16.
But Ms Delaney says individual companies have a responsibility to contribute. Continuum recently opened a £2m attraction in York on the story of chocolate. Northern businesses should stop looking for handouts and use their own resources, she says. “We cannot continue to call on the government to provide all of the funding.”