By Alex Oxborough
IN spite of gloomy industry predictions to the contrary, Brighton and Hove’s recession-hit tourism businesses are optimistic that the Olympics will bring a much needed boost.
With tourism responsible for over 13,000 full-time jobs in the city, which at 14% of the total workforce is 4% above the national average, the health of the tourism industry is key to the economic wellbeing of the city.
Since the banking crisis of 2008 traders in all sectors linked to the tourism industry across the city have reported a decline in the number of visitors, citing factors such as the current economic climate, along with petrol prices and lack of parking.
Official statistics support this feeling, with the latest available figures from VisitBrighton showing there were around 60,000 fewer overnight trips in 2010 than in 2009.
Rachael Surtees, Office Manager of North Laine boutique Velvet said: “You can see on the streets the number of businesses that have opened and closed very quickly.”
Like many other traders, Velvet are hoping the Olympics will offer opportunities to increase revenues as well as attracting visitors.
Ms Surtees said: “We benefitted last year from the Royal Wedding, it may be that it’s a brief thing and we might see a slump afterwards, but in the current climate we will take every opportunity that we can, we have got to look at it as a positive.”
While for many the Barcelona 1992 Olympics are the example of how the Games can boost tourism for a city and a region, the ‘build it and they will come’ theory has been discredited by leading tourism industry bodies.
A series of reports by the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) find the benefits of the Olympics to the tourism sector are often overstated.
The ETOA used hotel occupancy data as the basis of a series of studies looking at the impact of the Olympics on tourist numbers during the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and for up to a year afterwards.
Due to the way tickets for international visitors are distributed, via individual national Olympic authorities, it is not possible to gather data on international ticket sales, meaning the ETOA reports offer a rare look at the story behind the PR.
They conclude that nearly every city that hosts the Games suffers a slump in hotel demand after hosting the Games, with Sydney’s tourism figures falling for three consecutive years after the 2000 Games.
This phenomena is called ‘displacement’, whereby visitors are put off visiting during and after a large event, such as the Olympics, because they believe that prices will be higher, or getting around harder.
One Brighton visitor, Christina Beardsley, 44, from Belgium, said: “All the tickets are too expensive so it’s not something that would interest us. We would avoid London like the plague.”
VisitBritain, the UK’s national tourism agency, readily admit that displacement is a concern, but are optimistic that their £25million GREAT Britain marketing campaign, launched worldwide in February, will limit the damage.
A spokesman for VisitBritain said: “There is likely to be displacement and that’s part of what the GREAT campaign is there to do.
“We are on the front foot for trying to make what we are doing bear fruit.”
Back in the heady days of 2005 when first the bid was won, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, hailed the success as “a once in an era opportunity for British tourism” which would bring £2bn to the industry.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport are now downplaying specific figures and instead emphasising the benefits of the showcasing the UK will receive in the world’s media.
As evidence of the positive impact of showcasing, spokesmen for the government point to the increased number of overseas visitors to the UK in June and July of 2011; a result, they say, of the April royal wedding.
However, Office of National Statistics figures show that while there was an increase of 190,000 more visitors to the UK in June 2011, almost 100,000 of these were business trips, leaving a less impressive 90,000 additional visitors.
In July 2011, there were fewer overseas tourists than in July 2010.
Nonetheless, Government and VisitBritain sources say the GREAT campaign will attract 4.6 million more international visitors from 2011 to 2014. But taking into account the fall in visitor numbers since 2008, this growth would only be a return to pre-recession levels of over 32 million in 2007.
VisitBrighton is reluctant to play the numbers game, preferring instead to focus on their summer season marketing campaign ‘The Games last all summer in Brighton’.
A spokesman said: “Journalists from all over the world will be looking to write stories about the UK, so we will encourage them to write about Brighton and Hove.”
There are concerns that if the worldwide media exposure is negative, the London 2012 Games will damage the UK tourism industry for years to come.
Jeremy Sanders, proprietor of Vivid Palette, said: “I think we have had a lot of big positives and a lot of big minuses, we had the Royal Wedding last year, but we also had the riots.
“This year, we have got the Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee and if they go off well then there will be a positive effect.”
Happily, Brighton and Hove is not reliant on overseas tourists as they only account for 16% of the city’s annual visitors. Businesses that cater mainly to domestic visitors are less concerned by the Olympics, and many expect to be busy.
Sophie Wiltshire, Reception Host at Drakes Hotel said: “We will be getting people running away from the madness in London.”
Whatever the effect of the London 2012 Games on Brighton and Hove, the city’s hard-pressed tourism businesses will be hoping this summer will be a winner. Let’s hope the sun shines.