This is certainly a special year. Even for those who do not believe in the imminent Mayan apocalypse, Britain can revel in the Olympic Games and an extra bank holiday to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee.
With its many tourist attractions, the South West – which already has more domestic visitors than any other UK region – is in a prime position to compete with London and the South East for a bumper number of visitors from abroad.
But it will not happen unless we make it happen. That is why yesterday's tourism conference in Somerset was so important. The venue of the conference, Dunster, with its medieval heritage, ancient castle walls and serene backdrop to Exmoor National Park itself shows why so many visitors are attracted to the county. But unless foreign visitors are just as aware of it as domestic visitors – in other words, unless we market our attractions abroad – they will not come.
Currently, tourism brings over £9 billion to the local economy. It could be much more. For although the Olympics will take place largely in the capital some visitors will also travel elsewhere; and the so called 'legacy effect' has the potential to add another £1.3 billion to the UK economy from foreign tourism for up to four years after the games.
Somerset is too often the forgotten county, a transit route to Devon and Cornwall. Yet with over 100 tourist attractions the county offers plenty to explore beyond the traditional attractions such as Wookey Hole Caves or the Fleet Air Arm Museum. These need to be advertised to tourists from increasingly wealthy countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of course we must also look at the barriers to the growth of the tourist trade, not just in Somerset but across the West. With a new rail franchise being considered, now is the time to campaign to have redundant stations reopened and more frequent services connecting this region to London and beyond.
We need a faster and more reliable service on the Bristol-Weymouth line to provide better access to South Somerset and to the Jurassic Coast, a Unesco World Heritage site. We need electrification from Paddington to Plymouth, not just to Bristol.
Upgrades to our infrastructure will not only unlock future growth for jobs in services and manufacturing, but will also reduce the travel burden on visitors to the West. I know that the new Local Economic Partnerships, formed out of the ashes of the South West Development Agency have stressed the importance of this and are working with government and industry on future plans.
Beyond domestic investment, funding opportunities via Europe are available to promote our heritage.
Through partnerships with other European countries, Somerset became a project area for the European Garden Heritage Network. Through these funds, picturesque gardens such as Forde Abbey and East Lambrook in South Somerset to Hestercoombe Gardens and Wellington Park in Taunton Deane have benefited from subsidies for maintenance and improvement. Other funding projects through the rural focused Leader+ fund have helped heritage sites on the Somerset levels and funded websites offering advice on where to stay and visit off the beaten track.
And we can expect more, not less from Europe.
Under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, tourism became, for the first time, a specific competence of the European Union, subject to the majority of member states approving legislation. While doom mongers see this as further encroachment on our national sovereignty, the majority of industry stakeholders see it as an opportunity. An opportunity not only to develop the tourism industry in Somerset and the wider West but to also be part of the world's largest tourism market, which accounts for 40 per cent of arrivals at ports and airports each year.
The European Union's revenue from tourist visitors stands at over £240 billion, of which £67.5 billion comes from non-EU visitors. These visitors will largely benefit from the Schengen Agreement, where visitors to the Schengen area can travel freely across borders on the continent without applying for multiple visas. While the UK has hitherto opted out of this, the economic advantages of allowing visa-free travel to visitors who have already received the scrutiny of another member state's immigration system should be reassessed. Otherwise, in the long term, we risk being left behind by an industry which sees Europe as one entity.
China on its own is a huge market with great potential. It is envisaged that over 20 per cent of the international tourism trade will come from that country in the next six years. I know that Visit Somerset is working hard to make Somerset a top destination in the holiday brochures of Chinese travel agencies. Within the last year, a number of delegations has visited the region to research our top attractions.
I hope ideas and projects raised at the conference will be developed so that we can secure the future of tourism as an economic driver, creating new jobs and businesses in a thriving hospitality industry that continues to grow as more and more visitors share the idyllic land we are fortunate enough to call home.