Tourism should be driven firstly by what the people want. it’s got to be sustainable and regenerative and not damaging.
This article is centred on Cornwall but the message applies equally to Devon. – Owl
Lee Trewhela www.cornwalllive.com
Although Visit Cornwall boss Malcolm Bell is retiring at the end of the year, he’s certainly not taking any prisoners. He told CornwallLive the future of tourism in the Duchy relies on attracting ‘friends’ and ‘guests’ and forgetting the ‘****ing emmets’.
In an interview with CornwallLive, he said: “In my mind, visitors fall into five unofficial categories – at one level you have friends, then you have guests, then you have tourists, then you have bloody tourists, then you have ****ing emmets. You can quote me on that. The challenge we have is to get the friends, guests and tourists, who get us. Then try and convert the bloody tourists, but forget the awkward people who are ‘why haven’t you got this?’, ‘why haven’t you got that?’ It’s about targeting the right people at the right time of year.”
Mr Bell, 67, made the comment – which he knows he’ll get in trouble for – while talking about the two summers of the pandemic, when Cornwall was swamped by tourists, many of whom were here begrudgingly because they couldn’t go abroad.
“Last year, in particular, should be a salutary note, like burning your fingers as a kid you learn not to do that again. It’s great having a good road system now but it does open us up, and the pandemic opened us up to things that were quite difficult to cope with.
“In the 1970s people were in Cornwall because they couldn’t afford a proper holiday and there were a lot of chips on shoulders, and we felt that again in those two years. It had come back around. Twenty-five years ago it was ‘the Westcountry’, 15 years ago it was ‘Devon and Cornwall’ and now ‘Cornwall’ is the Waitrose and Devon is the Sainsbury’s. We’ve really come up through. We made ourselves the place to be, but half the country went abroad. Once you stopped them going abroad, we ended up with people here who didn’t want to be here. It’s settled down again now.”
There is a certain irony that the proud Cornishman who has helmed our tourism sector, used to wear a hat bearing a slogan which wasn’t the most inviting to visitors.
He said: “My mother destroyed the photograph otherwise you could have had it, of me wearing a hat with ‘Go home emmet’ written on it. That was because in about 1976 I was walking through Falmouth and these wonderful young men from Birmingham asked me where the nearest Indian restaurant was. Naively, I answered the question correctly to the best of my knowledge at the time, which was Plymouth. That’s why there’s a dent in my nose. I think they thought I was taking the Michael. So I wasn’t very happy about visitors for a while.”
It’s fair to say that under his tenure at Visit Cornwall, since 2010, tourism in Cornwall has never been so successful … or controversial.
“People don’t like me saying this, but the rise in tourism has helped with Cornwall’s identity, not necessarily always for the good, I’ll admit that, but people know about Cornwall now. We’re not just part of the Westcountry. We’re not tagged to a strange place called Devon. I always say Devon is the nearest place to Heaven … keep going and you’ll find it, and Devon is short for Drive On.
“But now we have to tackle the problems of success. That’s why we have to learn from those two years.”
Mr Bell steps down from his post at the end of December, but will carry on in the background in a consultation role, working on a plan for regenerative and sustainable tourism. Negotiations are currently taking place to employ his successor.
He told me: “I’m finishing off a strategy and trying to get Cornwall Council to endorse it, which says that the new direction in tourism should be driven firstly by what the people of Cornwall want, the next thing is improving the jobs and career prospects, and it’s got to be sustainable and regenerative and not damaging. Even if that restricts the growth of the sector, it can stay like that for decades. If you have a year like we had before, we’ll just be busted. That’s the worst thing that can happen. There are businesses that disagree with me, most agree.
“We are lucky compared to a lot of places as we’ve got a lot of independent businesses rather than chains of multi-nationals, or businesses that are backed by venture capitalists, who want their money. Whereas down here, most people want to look after Cornwall.”
He is a passionate advocate for regenerative tourism which has the people of Cornwall at its heart.
“In ten years time, we – and I mean everyone in Cornwall including the council – should be controlling the stock and only having professional providers doing the right things, and there should be a career path for somebody who enters at base level to progress to the level they desire. We should prevent over-tourism. There should be regenerative tourism, such as businesses doing rewilding work, introducing bees, holding more community events.
“When it comes to events, the core audience should be locals first and what they want. Don’t create things just for staying visitors. That’s part of regenerative tourism, which helps the local community but still generates the money you need.”
What about that hot potato, a tourism tax?
“We’ve got to get the right balance of the cost of tourism and the cost of improving Cornwall in a fair and equitable way that is easy to administer, because we do get calls for a tourism tax. Thirty-three pence in the pound of a visitor’s spend goes to London, so in Cornwall that’s about £600-£700 million. There should be some form of mechanism to get the balance right.
“My view is why can’t there be a balance where we get 5% of all that VAT money back? At the moment when tourism booms, it’s Cornwall pain, Treasury gain. And why can’t we find mechanisms where visitors are happy to contribute? As soon as you say ‘tourism tax’, one lot cheer and one lot oppose it, and that’s not going to bring us together.”
Mr Bell believes the success of Cornwall’s tourism industry, while negating the impact it can have on those of us who live here, is to spread the visitor love outside the peak summer months.
“We would like to attract an extra 10% to 20% of people in January, February and March but no more in August. That extends the jobs we’ve got. I think the two months we’ll never crack are November and January. February you’ve got half-term, so if you get it going in March to the end of October, staff will be kept on. So full-time employment in the sector would be around nine-and-a-half months.
“That’s why we’ve got to look at what we’re calling the Cornwall Evergreen, which is culture, restaurants, the heritage, the wildlife. I know dogs on beaches is a contentious issue, but if you’ve got a dog and you want to go somewhere in the winter, sandy paws are preferable to muddy paws. There are little markets and niches. Another area is attracting the business market to do their planning and reviews between October and March, so come down and do some actual blue sky thinking.
“The new website, which will be finished before I go, is Cornwall For All Seasons and is mainly designed to say what’s best about Cornwall outside the main peak. Not being funny, but any tourist board boss normally when they get TV and film coverage in their area gets excited, but in the last two years it’s been like London buses in Cornwall. It’s the same stuff – it doesn’t feature the areas that we’d like, such as south east Cornwall. It doesn’t actually show what it’s like to live here.”
How has this year been compared to the manic summers of 2020/21, when hospitality staff were at breaking point?
“This year has been quieter than 2019, ironically – the spring was quiet and then the attractions suffered a lot because it was so warm. If it’s 19 degrees you stay on the beach for three hours, but when it’s 25 you stay on it all day, every day.
“There have been too many people thinking they could get too much money like the two years before. It did give us a reputation for being too expensive, which is ridiculous. Value for quality is one thing, but ripping people off is a completely different thing. Sensible businesses – and there are plenty of them – didn’t overegg it. You nurture a customer for life, you don’t rip them off and expect them to come back. But those who did are now the ones who are suffering.”
What would he say to people who argue Cornwall shouldn’t be so reliant on tourism?
“I’m all for it. If you get a broader economy, with other sectors in Cornwall such as the space industry, you get more people who will go out and eat and drink, and it won’t be a seasonal thing. Though I would say to anybody, I don’t know anywhere in the world that’s attractive and on the periphery and doesn’t rely in varying degrees on tourism.
“Cornwall is a really strong brand now, but we want that expanded into all the other sectors too. If we could have a more balanced economy, that would be brilliant. If tourism in its size didn’t grow, but other sectors did – what’s wrong with that?”
He believes some radical changes have to be made, such as compulsory registration for everyone offering holiday accommodation at whatever level.
“The population in Cornwall when I started working was 250,000 and now it’s 550,000, which is why we’re pushing for compulsory registration and, I think the next thing is, planning permission if you’re going to rent out your property as a holiday let. You’ve got to be registered and have planning permission.
“I tried to bait Gordon Ramsay, but he wouldn’t take it, on Radio 5 Live. In the south of France if you’re a millionaire second home owner, you’re persuaded to buy a couple of houses to rent for local people. I tried to bait Gordon Ramsay into agreeing to buy a couple of houses to rent to up-and-coming chefs. We could do with a bit more of that philanthropic balance.”
Mr Bell, whose family go back centuries in Cornwall, said of his retirement: “A couple of years ago I was thinking of stepping down until a strange thing called Covid came along. This year was mainly spent settling things down, but I thought I can’t hang around as there will be another crisis in a minute … and there is one.”
He was brought up on Malabar estate in Truro, with one set of grandparents living on the Trelander estate on the other side of the city and his other grandparents at Hendra Vean in Truro. He attended Bosvigo School and then Treyew School in the city – “I used to go sleep every afternoon and the school inspector was called to my mother, and they asked why I was going to sleep all the time, and I said no one told me I couldn’t!”
He added: “I did rubbish for a few years, failed the 11-plus, went to Penwethers Secondary Modern – which became Richard Lander, I wasn’t bright enough to go to the grammar school. I attended Camborne Tech then did nuclear physics and computing at Manchester Poly, which was partly driven by meeting a girl from the north and partly by let’s see a city.”
A career in the civil service saw him return to Cornwall in a host of jobs, including one with the sexy title of work related non advanced further education funding manager. After undertaking an economic study of tourism in Devon and Cornwall in the mid-1990s, Mr Bell got a job with the Westcountry Tourist Board, which then turned into South West Tourism, and in 2010, after council unification, he was employed as chief executive of Visit Cornwall, which after losing its Cornwall Council funding continued as a CIC.
He said: “Tourism is not a statutory responsibility – when I arrived, the budget for Visit Cornwall was £2m and they took half a million off that for the One Cornwall project and then all the austerity cuts started hitting. Understandably when it comes to social care and children, why can’t tourism look after itself as it’s a big industry? Why was the taxpayer paying for it?”
Mr Bell says it’s a difficult job and wishes his successor well. He certainly gets a bit of stick from people on social media.
“I’m glad my mum’s gone, she would have got upset, and my dad would have got angry. I was taught by my father to have acute hearing but thick skin. So I listen to it and if it’s reasonable, regardless of how it comes across, I take it on board.”
He added that Visit Cornwall has had some brilliant and bizarre complaints in recent times. “People have complained St Ives doesn’t look right because the water’s out, someone said they drove over an hour from the north coast to the south coast to find the tide was in there as well, and ‘when I came last year the beach was big but now it’s small, you should tell people that the tide comes in’.”
Mr Bell told me: “My old geography teacher used to say to us, ‘crack on or you’ll end up working in tourism’.” He’s certainly made a good crack of it, even if his teacher wouldn’t approve.