Call me old-fashioned but even with the modern technologies of sat nav and the all-knowing Google, I still make a Tourist Information Centre (TIC) my first port of call when holidaying or even going on a day trip closer to home – of course this was in halcyon, pre-lockdown days.
Local maps, a wealth of knowledge and asking questions of a real person behind the counter who can’t really recommend just one restaurant, but always does. And I’m such a sucker for those tantalising tea towels and souvenir thimbles.
Sadly, such TIC delights in parts of Dorset are in danger of becoming a thing of the past with news that Dorset Council is to stop funding their last three Tourist Information Centres in Dorchester, Sherborne and Wareham. The Council says it cannot afford to continue to fund the centres which cost around £200,000 each year to operate and employ 12 part-time workers.
Councillor Jill Haynes, Dorset Council’s Portfolio Holder for Customer and Community Services, said: “It’s always a difficult decision to reduce services we have historically provided, especially in the current climate and when jobs are potentially put at risk. However, our financial situation leaves us little choice but to review the provision of all services we’re not legally required to deliver.
“We cannot afford to fund tourism support activity at a local level across communities in Dorset. The Council’s role is to promote Dorset as a destination, so we will continue to develop the Visit Dorset brand to support the visitor economy and promote sustainable tourism as part of our Economic Growth Strategy.”
A recent public consultation by Dorset Council, in which 990 people took part, showed a strong level of support for its TICs and the service offered to residents and visitors alike.
Dorset residents made up 85% of respondents. The consultation revealed that 82% make use of a TIC with nearly 40% visiting more than five times a year.
Councillor Jill Haynes said: “The consultation has demonstrated that TIC services are still considered to be important by local people, visitors and businesses. It’s important that Dorset Council investigates all potential options for how these services could be provided in the future. “
Submitted comments frequently mentioned the importance of encouraging tourism for the local economy, the value of offering a face-to-face service, working with other organisations around sites and having knowledgeable staffing.
Dorset resident, Paul Sugg, who participated in the consultation, wrote: “This seems the wrong time to reduce spending on encouraging tourism to our county. Bizarrely, at the time of greatest strain on the public purse, it is the remainder of 2021 when these services will be required most. Foreign holidays are unlikely to be permitted and the majority of UK nationals will be looking to ‘get away’ to attractive areas of our green and pleasant land. We now have a unique opportunity to showcase our county and persuade people to spend more time here, particularly in low seasons, for years to come.’’
Miranda Tunnicliffe suggested: “Could the TIC’s sell local products and tea and coffee to supplement their income? Leaflets about local events, accommodation and attractions are essential to a positive visitor experience in Dorset. The redevelopment of Weymouth train station could include a TIC office surely. There are masses of empty shops too. I would like to see Visit Dorset employees manning them to get value for money.”
Andrew Patrick felt any savings could be better redeployed: “Tourism is very important to the Dorset economy, but the Council has to consider why the majority of council-tax payers, who live in places with either no TIC , or a locally self-funded TIC, should subsidise TICs in just three places, when those council-tax payers might well prefer potential savings to go toward more vital services – such as child care for example – which are in desperate need of funding across the Council area.’’
This public consultation report was discussed at a recent Place and Resources Overview Committee meeting with discussions around how to continue to support the Visit Dorset website, work with local organisations to find solutions and consider one-off funding to reduce the impact of potential closures on local people.
During this meeting, it was revealed that half of respondents to the TIC consultation were not even aware of the Visit Dorset website.
Sturminster Newton’s Councillor Carole Jones raised her concerns that the Visit Dorset website should be more seamless. “It needs tightening up so that visitors to the website are taken easily to sections on an area of Dorset where they can find everything – where to stay, where to eat, where to visit.”
Councillor Sherry Jesperson, representing Hill Forts and Upper Tarrants, voiced concerns that rural tourism industries such as farm glamping need to be more engaged. “We need to market tourism opportunities beyond the ‘coastal smile’. This should be a priority for Visit Dorset.”
Councillor Jill Haynes told the meeting that the website, which receives 2.6 million visits a year, is likely to be revised: “We have 15 million social media hits a year and 85,000 followers yet I was surprised at the amount of people who took part in the consultation who weren’t aware of Visit Dorset. I’ve already been involved with meetings with town councils to discuss how we can encourage them to promote their areas and are keen for more networking across tourist attractions to happen.”
The reorganisation of the TICS was passed and will begin at the end of April in conjunction with the finish of the financial year. Weymouth Councillor Ryan Hope, objecting to the plan, voiced concerns that Dorset Tourism had been hit hard during the pandemic and this timing was not good. “With Covid restrictions being lifted and staycations set to be the popular holiday option this year, Dorset will be a favourite destination. Our TICs answer questions and give support for the whole of Dorset and our tourism industry needs all the help it can get.”
Public consultation respondent Ian Stuart believes Dorset Council will regret their decision.
“The elimination of the Tourist Information Centres is absurd. Dorset Council will live to regret it. At such a time tourism, and tourists, need more help than ever. Dorset Council – whose very existence depends upon the tax payer – is doing a radical disservice to the beautiful area they represent and we all live in.”
TICS in DORSET – how many are left and where are they?
There are five other TICs in Dorset Blandford, Bridport, Shaftesbury, Swanage and Wimborne are run by other organisations, such as Town and Parish Councils.
Some areas in Dorset no longer have a TIC at all, such as Weymouth and Lyme Regis. Evidence shows that it is mostly local people who visit TICs. Around 30 million people visit Dorset annually, with approximately 93,000 people visiting one of the three TICs during 2019/20.
By: Tracie Beardsley