The £764million question: How do we cope with tourism in Cambridge?

PUBLISHED: 18:06 18 July 2018 | UPDATED: 18:14 18 July 2018

Emma Thornton is chief executive of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Joe Higham Reportage

Emma Thornton is chief executive of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Joe Higham Reportage


With peak visitor season upon us, how is Visit Cambridge & Beyond working to ensure that tourism brings positive benefits to the city and surrounding area?

Cambridge is very popular with day-trippers but we need to encourage visitors to stay longerCambridge is very popular with day-trippers but we need to encourage visitors to stay longer

During the peak summer months, I receive occasional emails from local residents concerned about the level of visitor numbers in the city. Some have likened Cambridge to Disneyland during July and August, and others claim it affects their quality of life and their enjoyment of the city centre.

This is an important issue. Cambridge is an internationally-famous city and people want to come here – but we know that, with its medieval streetscape, the city faces challenges created by the volume of visitors, particularly those who only come for the day during the peak summer season.

Latest figures show that Cambridge visitors contribute £764million to the local economy, and account for 20 per cent of local employment. It would be foolish for us to turn our backs on this vibrant visitor economy – so our aim is to encourage value, not volume, tourism and to provide the best possible visitor experience. Overcrowding doesn’t enable us to deliver this and, as an organisation, we’re working hard to find sustainable solutions.

A global problem

This challenge isn’t unique to Cambridge – it’s a worldwide issue. In some places, the visitor experience itself is deteriorating due to queues and overcrowding. In Venice, locals are known to move to the mainland to escape the visitor influx – a phenomenon known as Ven-exodus.

Internationally, many destination management organisations (DMOs) have begun to adopt a strategic approach to the problem, to better manage visitor flow. However, we don’t want to tackle the problem in the same way as Barcelona, for example, whose mayor has openly told people not to visit. We need to adopt a holistic approach that still encourages people to visit, but to stay longer, spend more money and to travel further afield to the lesser-known areas within the region.

We are particularly fortunate in Cambridge in that the majority of DMOs across the country are primarily marketing organisations, but we have an equal focus on management. We are already involved in a number of strategies to deal with the threat of overcrowding during the summer months.

Visit Cambridge & Beyond encourages visitors to seek out Cambridgeshire's other attractions, such as Ely, with its magnificent cathedralVisit Cambridge & Beyond encourages visitors to seek out Cambridgeshire's other attractions, such as Ely, with its magnificent cathedral

Space and movement

A high proportion of our day visitors (88 per cent of our annual visitors) arrive by coach and all are dropped off in the same place – Queen’s Road. These tend to be ‘low-value visitors’ as they are often only here for a couple of hours so their spend is limited, which is frustrating. On a busy weekend in July or August we could have in excess of 100 coaches arriving, with people walking down the same two roads to access the city. Our proximity to London is a great asset but can also pose a challenge: four trains an hour reinforces Cambridge’s day-trip reputation.

We’re currently feeding into a number of studies that look into the issue of how people access and move around the city, in order to inform policy going forwards. For example, the city council is currently undertaking a ‘space and movement’ study that looks at the way in which space is navigated, particularly by pedestrians, and we are at the table during discussions, alongside key partners such as Cambridge BID.

We already know that when coaches arrive there are two or three potential drop-off points, but drivers are continuing to set down passengers on Queen’s Road and then, at times, park in residential streets until pick-up. Alternative coach drop-off points, new pedestrian routes and improved signage – to encourage a variety of visitor routes into the city centre and influence how people navigate through it – are all initiatives that Visit Cambridge & Beyond will be helping to develop.

Spreading the benefits

Visitors currently have a fairly one-dimensional view of Cambridge. People often think they’ve ‘done’ Cambridge if they’ve visited King’s College Chapel and had a punt on the river, but those of us who live and work in this beautiful city and its surrounding area know this isn’t the case. There’s a huge range of wonderful things to see and do in the wider Cambridge region but there’s also a general lack of awareness regarding this. When we became a DMO in 2016 we gained the freedom to promote these lesser-known areas and we’re currently working closely with partners in places such as Newmarket, Ely, St Neots, Bedford, Saffron Walden and St Ives to raise the profile of the surrounding area. Together we need to better tell the story of beyond Cambridge.

Emma Thornton says transport connectivity is an important area to consider in tourism management. Picture: Keith HeppellEmma Thornton says transport connectivity is an important area to consider in tourism management. Picture: Keith Heppell

We’re continually looking for regional tourism champions to help develop tangible projects that bring more tourism to their areas – however, because the tourism industry is fragmented by nature, we recognise that this new approach will take time to reach its potential.

Cambridge is the hub, the attraction, but we need to spread the benefits down the spokes to the surrounding areas too.

Investment in tourism

The government is currently developing an industrial strategy, looking at key sectors that will drive the economy. Visit England and Visit Britain have submitted a tourism sector deal in response to this, on behalf of the tourism industry nationally. If their bid is successful, the visitor economy will receive recognition at national government level as a priority sector to drive economic growth and productivity. This would lead to future investment to address some of the current barriers to developing the visitor economy in particular areas.

One of our own barriers for exploring the ‘beyond’ is transport connectivity – how do people get there easily?

We are in early discussions with the mayor and the new Combined Authority to look at connectivity and other limiting factors such as skills, to ensure that we are ready to maximise potential opportunities for the Cambridge area.

Cambridge is the attractor brand, but the greater Cambridge area holds many attractions that would, particularly with improved transport links, enhance the visitor experience and extend their economic value to the region.

Working together as a city

The threat of overtourism won’t dissipate overnight but, as a DMO, we now have the freedom to develop specific strategies to tackle the issue. While VCB is taking the lead in this area, our actions will only be as effective as the working partnerships that we seek to build across the city and region.

:: Emma Thornton is chief executive of Visit Cambridge & Beyond.

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