Christmas officially kicked off in London this week with the Regent Street lights* being switched on by last year’s X Factor winner, one of this year’s judges, a former Spice Girl, a DJ and the splendid British actor, Bill Nighy. Hopefully the IT crowd downstairs will be able to post a nice picture.
Now it matters not a jot what you, I or anyone else might think about the relentless chipping away of the time between the end of one festive season and the beginning of the next; the truth is that the clocks have gone back, Bonfire Night is behind us, the big stores’ Christmas TV ad epics are rolling out, and it’s a straight run through to the big day. And, as Minister for Tourism, you won’t find me raising any objections. That’s because Christmas – and its eternal message of hope, redemption and continuous shopping opportunities – is very good for our tourism business. And happily we’re very good at it too. Christmas markets, pantomimes, carol singing and the general glitter and sparkle – including, of course, the displays illuminating pretty much every high street up and down the country – work together to create a ‘visitor experience’** that for the most part pulls off the trick of being both charmingly sentimental and commercially successful.
So I was reflecting on this last Monday at the World Travel Market where Jeremy Hunt was speaking at the opening ceremony and putting some more flesh on the bones of the 20.12 per cent discount scheme that we want tourism businesses to sign up to next year. Big occasions, whether they come once a year or once in a lifetime, are good news for tourism and the discount scheme is a clever way of helping to offset what’s known as the ‘Olympic Displacement Effect’. This is a phenomenon that other host cities have observed and which – in a nutshell – can be summed up as people not coming to a country during ‘games time’ for fear it’ll all be too crowded and sporty for a ‘normal’ holiday. So the discounts will be an incentive, along with all the other amazing non-sporting things that’ll be happening, which can be gathered together under the general heading of the London 2012 Festival (a slight misnomer, some might say, as it’s happening all over the country, but never mind). One bit of business that is not entirely resolved about the discount scheme, however, is the issue of how to pronounce it (“twenty twelve per cent” seems to be winning, although “twenty point twelve per cent” or even “twenty point one two per cent” are also in the running, I suppose).
Visitor numbers up
Meanwhile, something called the International Passenger Survey has just come out (as it does every month) and – guess what? – the tourist stats for September show total visits for the year so far to have risen three per cent on 2010 levels, with visitor spending for the month up seven per cent on September 2010, with £1.5 billion coming in to the UK economy from overseas. Building on the record spend seen in June and July, overall spend per visit is up four per cent from the previous year resulting in record earnings across Britain of £13.2 billion so far in 2011. This is impressive, and useful too as we set about launching a marketing campaign for this country overseas, the like of which has never been seen before. Marketing whizzes – and common sense, for that matter – will tell you that it’s easier to sell something to someone who basically wants to buy it, than to someone who’s indifferent. So a measure of cautious optimism for our industry seems in order, and all the more so as we count down the remaining 44 (!) days to Christmas.
Finally, this weekend of course includes Remembrance Sunday. The DCMS plays an important role in this by organising the ceremony at the Cenotaph, and the civil servants responsible do so in a calm, efficient and unfussy way. Their work will only ever be noticed by the public if things go wrong and, as such, it’s to their credit that that never happens. But the thousands who gather in Whitehall on Sunday morning are just one tiny part of the nationwide picture. There are, in fact, around 100,000 war memorials of one sort or another in the UK and they are very much part of our heritage, maintained in many cases by volunteers who go about the task with precious little thanks or recognition. For some of these people the memorials they look after make a connection with events from the distant past, for others the link is sadly much more recent. The Heritage Lottery Fund helps out too, having awarded grants totalling more than £28 million for memorial conservation projects since the lottery began. And as for those who think it’s ok to steal the metal and stonework from these memorials – and the lead from our church roofs – there are, quite simply, no words to express our national revulsion at you. On Sunday and on every day.
*Keeping up the tradition of using this space to pass on little nuggets of general information, did you know that the very first Christmas light was switched on in 1882? This, by the way, was just three years after the invention of the light bulb, and took the form of a string of 80 red, white and blue bulbs. History, however, does not record whether the whole thing switched off when someone brushed against it, nor whether it worked first time when retrieved from its cardboard box in the loft a year later. The London displays in Regent and Oxford Street date from much later, though, and first appeared in 1954 and 1959 respectively. And did you know that they were not lit up between 1967 and 1978? Strange but true. And all because of the economic climate at the time and the need to conserve electricity, a state of affairs that it’s hard to imagine being replicated these days, thank goodness.
**An awful expression that is somehow smaller than the sum of its parts.
Photo by katling on Flickr. Some rights reserved.