This is how we can build York tourism back better

How do we reshape our tourism economy as we emerge from the pandemic? Andrew Lowson has a few ideas

We all know that tourism is a key sector for York. But what sort of tourism do we want in the future?

That was one of the key questions at the VisitYork Tourism Conference last Thursday, which had the theme Tourism in a post-pandemic world.

I took part in the online event and was able to report some good news. York city centre footfall in December was down by only 5% compared to December 2019, whereas the UK average decrease was 22%. O2 data shows near on a third of those in the city centre were local – so can we please stop the rhetoric that residents don’t use York!

There were three questions from the conference that I hear a lot of businesses talk about and require coordinated thought as we look to ‘build back better’.

Better, not more

York needs to get out of the pure numbers game. It makes no sense to try to attract ever greater crowds of visitors to our small medieval city.

That means targeting specific cohorts of visitors. But who should they be? This question was explored by Group NAO in their presentation to VYCON22.

One city to have already begun redesigning its visitor economy is Amsterdam. According to NAO, it is restricting visitor access to the infamous coffee shops, relocating part of the sex industry, and making moves to discourage certain visitor segments, including stag and hen parties.

Amsterdam is also one of a number of destinations aiming to attract ‘valuable tourism’. The Dutch city says: “We are open to any visitor who leaves the city a little better and more beautiful than how they found it.”  If York went down this route, it would need to be mindful of the consequences.  Many stag and hen parties bring money for York businesses and many do behave responsibly; for those who do not, does the city have the appetite to enforce?

Designing in sustainability

Green tourism is a growing market. If York wants to position itself as an environmental champion – which it certainly should – our tourism strategy must embrace sustainability.

VYCON22 heard from Glasgow Convention Bureau which actively targeted low-carbon and energy related conferences, to real success. In York, sustainable tourism might mean introducing new ways of raising revenue from visitors, money which could be spent on improving the city – a specific ‘giving back’ to residents.  At the same time, it is a positive, feelgood message for environmentally-conscious visitors.

Challenging complacency and embracing community 

Many tourism stakeholders told Group NAO that complacency was a big challenge in York. Simply put, we need to do more than rely on our history and heritage.

Our city should be one of cultural innovation – a place unafraid to try new things. But there needs to be the overall will. Last year, the BID received great feedback for our Ghosts In The Gardens project, a unique installation which saw sculptures take over Museum Gardens in time for Halloween. We were delighted York Museums Trust allowed us to use their space, because doing things in the city centre often comes with so much red tape, health and safety and cost. It was one reason the Fringe Festival stopped coming to York. As a city, we need to improve.

Enhanced cultural activity must go hand in hand with building a sense of community. People often question what this means?  Perhaps a York suburban success story could provide a blueprint. In a few short years, Bishopthorpe Road reinvented itself as the very model of a modern mixed economy – complete with everything from indie shops to quirky, friendly cafes to green businesses like Bishy Weigh. 

The whole area has been uplifted as a result and people will pay a premium on house prices to be part of this community.  There are certainly lessons here that can be applied to York city centre, as both the public and private sector look to re-design space that is relevant for a post-Covid world.

Andrew Lowson is Executive Director of the York BID