September: Oxford & tourism – who gains?

September: Oxford & tourism – who gains?

When people ask about Oxford Open Doors I will often say it’s ‘your chance to be a tourist in your own city’ and as we head for the highest guest figures yet, at well over 30,000, we will look closely to see how many people are local, for you are the audience we do it for.  Last year over 70% of our guests registered OX postcodes so, so far, so good, but we’ll have to keep an eye on it.  

There’s been much in the national press recently about the negative pressures of tourism, in our counterpart cities of Venice, Barcelona or Dubrovnik, in Poldark’s Cornwall, or in Edinburgh where the local community feels displaced.   

What of Oxford? For we surely occupy the same international and national stage, with tourists attracted from across the globe to see our great University with its fine heritage buildings, alongside thoughts of Harry Potter.  I sometimes wonder what they think when our visitors arrive by coachload to find, instead of a heritage attraction, a functioning academic institution, and one of the best in the world to boot, though one that so often turns its back on the streets and bars others from entry. We have had lots of messages to the OPT team following the Oxford Open Doors weekend, telling us about the amazing things Oxford showed them, and of the warm welcome experienced.  This tells of the strong relationships we have built with the University, the Colleges and the town, and its once a year. I wonder at the normal tourist experience, making do with a selfie against the, admittedly magnificent, backdrop of the Radcliffe Camera, rightly off limits as a library of learning, and where they will likely get in the way of a reader making his or her way in. And what of the reader and his/her experience?   

There are large well organised attractions at Blenheim and Bicester Village, and, within  Oxford, Christ Church, New College and Magdalen open regularly to paying tourists and the Museums, Gardens and Oxford Castle & Prison do a grand job too. 

But who joins it all up, who talks to who?  Experience Oxfordshire, the County’s destination management and tourism marketing organisation is run by tourism professionals who know their stuff.  But they are small in number and have a lot to do, and with limited funds. What they are beginning to achieve is amazing when I reflect on the many years that tourism has been neglected in Oxford, a place where traditionally tourism is always someone else’s job, no one’s statutory obligation, something that simply happens, despite its role as one of the largest employers and biggest economic drivers across the City and County. 

Perhaps that is at the root of why any talk of tourism at a strategic level is about statistics and not the people, their experience and how to manage them better and well.   It is now becoming urgent to understand how and why tourists come here, and how long they stay.  We need Oxford to be an all year round place, not just for summer visitors, for who comes to England for its weather except in 2018.  When tourists arrive we need to guide them to where we want them to go, and we should surely care what memories they take away of this glorious city of ours, which is the stuff of dreams?   The colleges with their conference trade and study schools have a role in ensuring that these groups are well managed, and not hanging about in the streets, and our tourist guides should be licenced, able to take visitors into places not just our streets, with our taxi drivers well-trained to provide a warm welcome and suggestions to visitors of where they might go and what they might do. With two or three big hotels coming to Oxford soon there will be more choice of  accommodation which can be used to encourage visitors to stay longer and eat in our cafes and restaurants, not just leave their chewing gum behind for our streets.   

And so to tourist coaches and the glories of St. Giles.  Once upon a time not too many years ago, we all got together to stop the coach parking here.  Today it has become a designated drop off space, something that needs to be reversed.  Only last week, the city council replaced the temporary coach parking at Redbridge Park & Ride with a recycling centre as tourist coaches are not their responsibility, so that now they have nowhere to go.  I wholeheartedly agree with the Lord Mayor, Colin Cook, who said it was simply not good enough for the City Council to wash hands of this responsibility, as he reminded his colleagues that they had taken the coach park from Oxpens for a temporary car park when the Westgate came to town.  It is time to give it back. 

It is all our responsibilities to work together across all walks of the city’s life, the Councils, regardless of their statutory duty, the university, colleges, Experience Oxfordshire, bus and coach operators, those who provide the accommodation, the lot – it’s time to take charge and before it is too late. 

Article written for The Oxford Times 20th September 2018