Minister's visit showed up the importance of tourism to East Anglia

Pete Waters and Nigel Huddleston

Pete Waters from Visit East of England and Tourism Minister Nigel Huddleston during their tour of Suffolk. - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Last week Tourism Minister Nigel Huddleston paid a two-day visit to Suffolk to see how the industry had changed and adapted to the last 18 months or so.

That was unusual in itself - usually ministers visiting this area do a "quick hit" - a train out of London, two or three hours in the county and then a train back to the smoke.

Mr Huddleston's two-day visit gave him a chance to see many different areas of the tourist industry - and for its leaders to explain what was happening here. 

When I spoke to him at the end he appeared to be impressed - although gave little away about how the trip may change his, and the government's thinking.

The pandemic was devastating for the hospitality industry as a whole with pubs and restaurants forced to shut for months at a time - but for the UK tourist industry it has presented a great opportunity as people have been unable to travel abroad.

It does look as if much of the industry has been able to take advantage of that - and according to Pete Waters from Visit East of England bookings for next year are already running far ahead of where they were pre-pandemic.

I'm not surprised - we booked our Hampshire holiday for next year a couple of months ago and even then if we'd wanted to stay there during the school holidays next year our choice would have been seriously limited.

This is clearly partly because of the uncertainty over foreign travel in the future - and the sheer hassle of making trips if we still have to worry about Covid tests and isolating on return if there's a serious outbreak in a holiday hotspot.

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But we shouldn't forget that domestic holidays aren't only about those who are looking for an alternative to two weeks in the Med or Caribbean.

There are millions of us who can't stand the thought of hours waiting in airport queues or entrapment in a metal tube at 30,000 feet who like exploring our own country every year.

For all those reasons domestic tourism has a very positive future - and that message did seem to get out to Mr Huddleston.

One thing the industry, and society as a whole, needs to do is to understand the importance of the sector to the economy as a whole.

East Anglian Tourism is calculated to contribute £10bn to the region's economy every year with 240,000 jobs dependent on it.

Yet too often we get the impression that these are not "real jobs" as other industries make extravagant claims about how many employees they will take on.

It is time that perception is readjusted. Part of the issue has always been that tourism is too often seen as seasonal - in the past it was a business that only operated from Easter to the end of September. 

That is changing. Mr Waters said to me that the tourist season these days effectively runs from the February half term to the October half term - and you have Christmas and New Year to consider as well. 

So I suppose that means the "quiet season" runs from January 10 to February 10 these days!

What the tourist industry does need to do - and to shout about - is to come up with a real career path for the increasing number of full-time staff it employs.

Not every job in the industry is highly-skilled, but doing your work well and with enthusiasm should be rewarded. Cheerful and engaging bar staff are much more likely to bring the punters back than a miserable old grouch - however good he might be at pouring a pint of Ghost Ship!

People need to recognise that and to see that work in the tourism sector can be exciting and enjoyable - but it must also be financially rewarding. It's a great industry. Let's recognise its importance to the region - and the country as a whole.

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