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Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

1. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on the contribution of VisitWales to the UK tourism strategy. (205949)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet regularly with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on that and a range of other issues. The House will be pleased to note that VisitWales is working closely with VisitBritain to maximise the potential opportunities for tourism in Wales. VisitWales’s campaigns in activity tourism and business tourism have generated an extra £43.3 million and £31 million respectively for the Welsh economy in 2006-07.

I am on record as saying that the best two-week holiday that any person inside or outside the House can have is a week in Wales, preceded by a week in Shropshire en route to Wales. Given the latest figures from the Welsh Assembly Government showing that room bookings in Wales are down by 5.3 per cent. and restaurant bookings are down by 13.4 per cent., why are the Welsh Assembly Government cutting the Welsh tourism budget by £74 million?

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman reflects the excellent tourist product that is on offer in Wales, as well as in Shropshire. The Conservative shadow spokesman, the Assembly Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, has said:

“The Assembly Government needs to look urgently at its existing tourism strategies, assess where policies are working, and resolve those which are not.”

I am sure, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the November announcement of the tourism review to provide a deeper understanding of the current and future needs of tourism in Wales, the action plan currently being developed, which is designed to improve Wales’s competitive position, and the surveys that show a high level of general confidence in tourism in Wales, a determination to succeed and an intention to invest in the quality of the tourism product. We are doing a good job in Wales on tourism.

The Minister will know that some of the most important visitor destinations in north and south Wales are the quarrying and mining museums. The oldest is the Welsh miners museum at Afan Argoed country park in my constituency. I am proud to say that I am its president. The Welsh Assembly Government give considerable support to mining and quarrying museums. May I suggest to the Minister that he initiate discussions with appropriate UK Ministers to develop strategies to ensure that those fine educational and tourist resources in Wales are better known throughout Britain and the world?

Indeed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would be happy to discuss further those interesting ideas of how to promote the Welsh and wider UK mining heritage. I know my hon. Friend’s prominent position—in fact, I am sure that I have been lobbied on the very worthy miners museum in his constituency. As he mentioned the Welsh Assembly, he will have noted the free funding for the Big Pit mining museum, which is one of the most excellent innovations in providing free entrance to the museums of Wales. However, I would be interested in meeting him and speaking further about those interesting ideas.

Given the importance of the Preseli bluestones to the Stonehenge world heritage site, will the Minister have a word with the Ministers responsible for transport and culture in this country and with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that progress is made on the new visitor centre at Stonehenge, so that it includes proper education about the site and its relationship with the important sites in Wales?

The hon. Gentleman is a dogged and determined campaigner on behalf of Stonehenge. In fact, I have been in Adjournment debates as a Back Bencher when he has persistently pushed the issue. His comments are noted, and I am sure that I will reflect them in my discussions in the margin with other Ministers.

My hon. Friend has visited the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in my constituency, and I know that he knows that it is up for world heritage site status this year. Does he agree that achieving that status would be a major asset to tourism in north-east Wales?

Indeed; I am reminded of my visit to the Pontcysyllte aqueduct every day when I drink my coffee in the Wales Office from a Pontcysyllte commemorative mug. I am proud to confirm that the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and canal have proceeded through the technical check phase of the UNESCO world heritage award and will now be evaluated by a UNESCO-appointed assessor to determine whether they will be shortlisted. I thank again all those who have worked so long and hard and who have put so much effort and dedication into campaigning to get the aqueduct recognised as a world heritage site. We in the Wales Office wish it the very best of luck, and I am sure that the House does too.

Tourism is very important in Wales, employing, as it does, about 10 per cent. of the total work force. However, the Welsh Assembly Minister with responsibility for tourism announced a fall of nearly three quarters of a million visitors to Wales last year compared with the previous year. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced, through the comprehensive spending review, a 20 per cent. cut in VisitBritain’s funding over the next four years. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in DCMS and emphasise the need for VisitBritain to play its full part in getting visitors into Wales?

My honourable colleague is right to note the importance of tourism to Wales, in terms of jobs and economic impact, and the important interrelation between VisitWales and VisitBritain. That point is well made. Last year, there was almost a triangulation of relevant factors. We undoubtedly had an appalling summer—that was true across the UK—and the pound was an issue. Also, the previous year was unusually good, which was welcomed by everybody. We all hope, therefore, that what seems like a slump is temporary and that tourism will be brought forward. However, I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and they will be reflected in my discussions with other Ministers.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the Department for Transport and in the Welsh Assembly Government about the future of the Severn bridge tolls? It is hardly a welcome to Wales to be faced with a charge. Furthermore, the charge cannot even be paid by credit card, which can put many foreign visitors in extreme difficulties.

My hon. Friend may be aware of the current review that will report in the autumn on toll charges on the Severn bridge. I commend her, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) and others for campaigning long and hard on this issue, but we have to give the review time to consider it and report back.

The tourism spend in Wales over the last four quarters fell by almost 9 per cent., whereas it increased by 4 per cent. across the UK as whole. The Minister has acknowledged that last year was a difficult year, but visitors to Wales spent about £159 million less last year than they did as long ago as 2000. We all acknowledge the crucial importance of tourism to the Welsh economy. Does the Minister agree that tourism in Wales should be promoted by properly qualified industry professionals and not by civil servants? Does he agree that, in hindsight, the decision to scrap the Wales Tourist Board and absorb it into the Welsh Assembly Government has proven to be nothing short of catastrophic?

As someone who comes from a tourism and leisure background, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the brand identity of the Wales Tourist Board, but that is not the same as saying that it cannot do an equally good or even a better job in its current role. Everyone will acknowledge that last year was difficult—it was difficult across the UK—but as I said in my opening remarks, strategies and action plans are in place. We hope that Wales tourism will drive forward in the future to have a resurgence of its success of recent years.