This Easter weekend sees the start of the holiday season in earnest as thousands of people visit Pembrokeshire for day trips, weekend breaks and early family holidays. Last year was an excellent year for many of local tourism businesses with the hot weather bringing more visitors to our County as people ditched the Costa del Sol or the Canary Islands for the Pembrokeshire Coast.
2017 was a record year for foreign tourists coming to the UK, helped by the drop in the value of the pound, and it was pleasing to see more Americans and Europeans coming to experience the history and stunning coastline that Pembrokeshire has to offer. The cruise ships stopping off at Milford Haven and Fishguard have helped fuel this increase and so has some better international marketing of Wales as a tourist location. Traditionally Wales has lagged well behind Scotland, Ireland and parts of England as a destination of choice within the British Isles.
The weather has a big part to play in the success of the tourist season in Pembrokeshire. There is not a lot we can do to control that but there are now many businesses across the County demonstrating that rain and wind does not need to mean cancelling a weekend break or cutting short the family holiday. The Bluestone resort, almost single-handedly, has helped to broaden the local tourism season and is busy all year round. Adventure pursuits like coasteering and canoeing are being successfully marketed as all-weather activities.
But what about the factors that we can control and need to be improved?
Well there is the transport situation for a start. The Conservative government in Westminster has given a boost to the Welsh tourist industry by abolishing the Severn Bridge tolls which have added cost and delay to the trip to Wales. However, the road congestion on the M4, especially around Newport, continues to get worse making the Friday evening journey west a nightmare for visitors. I recently held a debate in Parliament where I explained the economic cost of this congestion and urged the Welsh Government to quit the dithering and get on and build the long overdue M4 relief road.
The trains can also be very difficult with delays, frequent cancellations and overcrowded carriages. The new Transport for Wales body recently promised improvements and we will hold them to account on this. New rolling stock will hopefully mean cleaner and more reliable trains with more seats for weary passengers.
There is still the issue of Sunday cancellations which are a particular problem in summer. Transport for Wales recently explained to me the nature of the problem – train crew contracts mean that drivers and train managers cannot be ‘required’ to work Sundays. So when a weekend heat wave comes or, as happened last year on an important football world cup weekend, there is a lot of staff absence and services get cancelled. This kind of outdated employment arrangement cannot continue.
Then there is the issue of broadband and mobile phone coverage. Now it is true that many people escape on holiday and love nothing better than to turn off the phone and leave the computer far behind in the office. But for many others, especially with youngsters, getting a good signal to share the holiday experience with friends and family and others on social media is a must.
Last month I spoke in Parliament about the need for better mobile phone coverage and broadband provision in rural tourist destinations. “Who wants to go on holiday in 2019 where there is no signal or decent internet?” I hear this kind of comment a lot from local tourism operators like the caravan parks and B&B owners who also rely on good connectivity for their online marketing. There have been significant improvements across Pembrokeshire in the last few years but it makes it even more important that the job gets finished and the whole of the County gets good access to essential modern communication services. I will be joining BT Openreach engineers out and about in a couple of weeks to see first-hand how the broadband situation is being tackled.
The tourism industry provides a lot of employment in Pembrokeshire. Much of it is of course seasonal and has historically offered lower wages. But many tourism businesses are now keen to show that, for the right people, this sector can offer careers with strong prospects for promotion and not just temporary work.
Tackling low pay is a key part of this. The recent decision by the UK government to increase the National Minimum Wage and the National Living Wage means that thousands of workers across the County will see their pay increase this month. Today, a full-time worker in Pembrokeshire receiving National Living Wage will be more than £2,750 better off over the year compared to when it was first announced in 2015. Couple this with the increase in the Personal Allowance, people are taking home more money at the end of the month and that can only be a good thing for firms looking to hang on to good staff who help their business grow and succeed.
Last week I visited the award-winning Fields Lodge B&B in Herbrandston and discussed with guests what makes Pembrokeshire a great place to visit and how we can make it even better. There is no question that Pembrokehsire has a real magic for visitors. But the world is changing at a rapid pace and the expectations and demands of today’s tourists mean that our local industry has to compete harder than ever to beat competition from other locations.
So whether it is in Westminster, Cardiff or at County Hall, creating the conditions for Pembrokeshire’s tourism entrepreneurs to compete and win in this tough marketplace should be a key mission for all local politicians - the whole year round.