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National Tourism Structures- Who's Got it Right?

11 April 2006

The past month has brought significant changes to the UK's tourism landscape. The Tourism Boards (Scotland) Bill was introduced into the Scottish Parliament and the Wales Tourist Board was disbanded and its functions transferred to Visit Wales, the Welsh Assembly's tourism team.

These steps signal the end to the reorganisations of the National Tourist Boards for Scotland, Wales and England that have been undertaken over the last five years.

The key question that each administration has to answer is whether the centralised control of the tourism strategy and funding offers the greatest economic benefits or whether devolving responsibility to the regional level brings better returns.

Both approaches have their benefits. Centralisation provides a more coherent and co-ordinated approach that efficiently utilises Government funding. Devolution allows for a more tailored approach to be developed to suit local circumstances that increases the economic benefits to the regions.

Interestingly, each of the three administrations has come up with different structures to formalise the relationship between their national and regional tourism bodies.

In England, the Government has decided that devolving most of the responsibility for tourism development to the regional level will provide the best return on its expenditure.

This process started in 2001 when Westminster removed the English Tourist Board's marketing role and transferred the responsibility for regional tourism to the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs).

- In 2003, responsibility for the tourism strategy was devolved from the English Tourism Council (ETC) to the RDAs. The ETC became a division within VisitBritain with a reduced budget and a mandate to simply market England domestically.

Regional tourism development is now so devolved in England that the Government no longer funds it through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The RDAs are funded by the Department of Trade and Industry and individually determine how much they allocate to tourism. This means that DCMS has limited ability to direct, or even influence, tourism strategy in England.

Scotland has taken the opposite approach. The new bill will formalise arrangements to bring the 14 Area Tourist Boards (which were operated by local authorities) under the control of VisitScotland.

By doing this, the Scottish Executive plans to create an integrated tourism network that will help increase Scottish tourism revenues by 50% by 2015.

It feels that this can only be achieved through the centralised co-ordination of tourism policy and strategy so that business support, marketing, and information and quality programmes can be implemented nationally.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Assembly has opted for a "third way" that attempts to combine national co-ordination with independent tourism development at the regional level.

On the one hand, it has strengthened its control over national tourism marketing and development through the Department of Enterprise, Innovation and Networks taking over the Wales Tourist Board. On the other hand, it set up four Regional Tourism Partnerships (RTPs) in 2002 to develop and implement regional tourism strategies.

The core funding for the RTPs comes from the Assembly so that the Partnerships can implement national strategies. Funding generated by the RTPs from other sources, such as tourism businesses and local authorities, is more targeted toward regional development.

So we have three different answers to the same question. It is still too early to provide definitive answers as to which structure will ultimately prove to be the most successful. However, what is certain is that they can't all be right.

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