Tourism fights to reverse decline as industry hits 'tipping point'
The Westcountry's vital tourism industry is at "tipping point", it has been warned, after new figures showed the sector had declined by 3.5% in the last decade.
More than 90,000 people are directly employed in tourism businesses in Devon and Cornwall in an industry worth an estimated £4 billion-a-year.
But statistics for the Atlantic regions of Europe showed Cornwall propping up the table having lost 5% of trade in 2002-11, while Devon lost 2%.
That worrying downward trend continued in 2012 with visitors numbers down an estimated 6.5% in Cornwall and 10% in Devon.
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On Friday night Cornwall's Eden Project hosted the South West Tourism for Excellence Awards, when the star performers of the regional tourism industry were rewarded for their efforts.
Despite the upbeat awards evening – at which Devon and Cornwall attractions, restaurants and accommodation providers stole the limelight, there are concerns about the season ahead.
"We are at a tipping point at the moment," Laura Holt, chairman of the Devon Tourism Partnership, said.
"It's at rock bottom with regard to the weather, the recession and other factors affecting the UK holiday market.
"The weather is one thing we can't do anything about but we can add value around our offering to make Devon an attractive proposition."
Malcolm Bell, head of Visit Cornwall, added: "We are in danger of becoming like Marks & Spencer was a few years ago in that we have very loyal customers but we are not gaining market share very much."
While Cornwall and Devon remain the leading destinations for holidaymakers in the UK, the regional industry has been hit by a number of long-term factors including the emergence of the "city break" and cheap, short haul flights abroad.
Last year, the industry suffered what has been described as "Holy Trinity" of the London Olympics, continuing economic gloom and one of the wettest year's on record.
The figures from the Atlantic Forum, a European body looking to produce an action plan to boost west coast regions, showed Cornwall at the bottom of the table for growth, while other competitors such as West Wales had enjoyed double-digit growth.
Mr Bell said: "It shows that our growth, and that of Devon, has been negative and that is partly due to the fact that places like Torquay, Newquay and to a lesser extent Falmouth have lost bed stock over that period.
"In essence we have been flatlining, or slightly declining, since 2002 when Cornwall was having 5.2 million visitors a year. In 2011 it was 4.5 million and last year it was 4.2 million."
Fewer visitors, he said, and a squeeze on people's incomes had resulted in a poor year, particularly for attractions.
But Mr Bell said "top end restaurants", one of the success stories of recent years, had been "struggling" to hold their numbers.
With feedback that visitors were looking to cut spending on food and drink and with local incomes also under pressure because of the prolonged economic downturn, Mr Bell said the sector faced a "double whammy".
Other long-term worries include the fact that just 9% of the visitors to Cornwall in 2012 had never been to the county, compared to 22% a decade ago.
"People have set 2012 as a benchmark for what business can be like," Mr Bell added. "They are putting strategies in place to cope with additional visitors but no-one is suggesting it is suddenly going to bounce back because we are in very uncertain economic times.
Mrs Holt said last year's fall in visitor numbers had affected destinations across the UK. Visit Scotland has reported a 12% fall in its figures despite its £21 million marketing fund last year.
"The real growth market is in the top end," she said. "Four-star self catering and high end properties are doing really well but it is the smaller B&Bs who are reliant on repeat visitors who are struggling.
"Those businesses which are adapting to change in the way their customers are interacting with them are thriving."
Mrs Holt stressed businesses had to embrace the web and social media such as Facebook and Twitter to meet customers expectations.
"It is not just about creating a website and waiting for the bookings to come in. We are in an age of dialogue with consumers where people need a reason to make their purchase."