August: Where will the tourists go?

August: Where will the tourists go?

It’s Tuesday lunchtime, and I am enjoying lunch in a friendly bubble at the Old Bank, with thanks to Dishy Rishy. We could have gone for the street café culture of George Street in the late summer sun, or Cornmarket with its vibe of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, but it is raining and views of St Mary’s Tower, All Souls and the Radcliffe Camera win. Still, the speed at which the authorities have moved to take control of the tarmac and create public spaces is marvellous and I hope some of this remains as the Autumn and Winter close in. 

Is there some hope that the engagement with our public realm, and enthusiasm to reduce traffic will bring lasting benefits for residents? September will see the city and its roads busier as the schools return on staggered start times and plans are in place for our two Universities to welcome their students back, but the traction is there and will no doubt bring some help for climate change in reducing car use and air pollution.     

I am back in the High on the way to my office, careful to follow the arrows, head down against the wind, only to be suddenly and unexpectedly stopped in my tracks by a group of tourists, even a crowd. They have gathered to listen as their enthusiastic leader, clearly delighted at his freedom to be out and about once more, shares stories of Oxford.  A friend had just told me of the glories of visiting Venice without the people and I imagine that Oxford must seem the same to them. They will know nothing of last August’s frenzied pavements, as hording throngs blocked the way for passers-by, disgorging from fuel-fumed coaches, blotting the landscape of the place they had come across the skies to see. Haphazard against the kerb the driver leans lazily on the wheel arch oblivious of his surroundings and pleased at the convenience of his parking as he has a tight timetable with Shakespeare & Stratford, and Bicester Village to come once his wards have taken their obligatory snap of the Radcliffe Camera.

Oxford is seventh in Visit England’s list of most popular UK destinations and normally we see around 8 million visitors spending a staggering £900 million and providing 15,550 jobs for 13% of Oxford’s workforce.  And Oxford’s tourists will return, and rightly so, and so we need to use this quiet time wisely if we are to learn anything from the horrors of the past. A good destination management plan is needed which will require input and buy-in from the County, City, Local Enterprise, Experience Oxfordshire and businesses, the University and the Colleges, and the tour operators themselves. Oxford needs to agree where tourist coaches can drop off and pick up, and not in St. Giles where they immediately head en masse along narrow pavements to Broad Street, or the Oxford Playhouse where the canopy has become an unofficial bus shelter. An idea might be to utilise the Westgate and Oxpens where there is some over-provision of bus laybys close to the car park entrance in an area which cries out for some use and animation, and which could drive footfall and increased spend. We need dedicated coach parking and good hygienic facilities to welcome our visitors, and a visitor information centre to guide them where to go. And we need to take a leaf out of the book of those in Oxford who have pressed for the reduction in cars and the increase of the use of our streets for the public if this is to happen.

In the meantime, before the visitors do return, do take your chance to be a tourist in your own home, and come and look at our splendid city whilst the crowds are away and you can feel safe. Visit Oxford Castle & Prison, the Botanic Gardens or Magdalen College Grounds which are all open every day.  And over the weekend of 12/13 September, Oxford Preservation Trust has been working to bring you Oxford Open Doors Goes Outside with a range of virtual tours to get you inside the buildings together with self-guided walks and other fun events.

Debbie