Does York have international visitor appeal?

PUBLISHED: 21:45 14 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:16 20 February 2013

A city guide in Roman soldier guise

A city guide in Roman soldier guise

York plays host to millions of tourists every year. But does it have international visitor appeal? Tony Greenway talks to tourism chiefs to find out. PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE KIPLING.

'If people aren't aware of what there is to do in York, it's up to us to explain it to them. You know: there's a whole host of things on our doorstep... and you should stay longer. And we have various campaigns running to try and get that message across.'

And York is usually on the itinerary of overseas visitors who are on a touring holiday of Britain. They come into London, make their way up the West Coast via the Lake District, tour Scotland, go to Edinburgh and, on route back to the south, take in York. John Yeomans thinks the small scale of the city can work to its advantage.

'It's very walkable,' he says. 'Another fascinating thing about it is that it's visible from a long way away. I went to Florence recently, I expected to see this medieval city loom into view the closer I got. It didn't, though, until I was well into the centre. But coming into York from various entry points, you're able to see the Minster from a long way away. I think that's fantastic.'

We're not sure whether to envy or pity John Yeomans, Chairman of Visit York, the city's shiny, new-look tourism organisation. On one hand, John and his team work hard to raise the profile of their home town (which must be nice). On the other, complete strangers presumably stop the Visit York crew every five minutes to tell them what they like and dislike about the place (which would get on our nerves. So good job we don't have to do it).

John laughs. 'Funny you should say that. One of my daughters lives in Brisbane and doesn't come home very often. But she was back in York recently and noticed a real change in just 18 months. Bars, cafes, the quality of the shops... a real change for the better.'

Tourism is York's lifeblood. The city attracts 4.5million visitors a year who spend over 330 million - a figure which has created nearly 10,000 jobs in the local economy. That's 10 per cent of York's workforce. But, not so long ago, 'tourism' was a dirty word in this part of the world.

'Go back to the 1980s, and the industry was thought of as low-paid, exploitative, and part-time by the Labour Party,' says John. 'The Conservative Party, meanwhile, didn't think it was any job of theirs to spend rate-payers' money on developing tourism, which they saw as other people's businesses.'

But now it's a different story. Visit York's raison d'etre is to encourage people to come here. And people ARE coming. You only have to try and find a car-parking space in the city in high summer to realise that visitors are here in their droves. Here's a test you can try: have a go at walking briskly down Stonegate in July or August at two in the afternoon. You can't do it. There will always be a crowd of people in front of you, walking very slowly indeed.

York has achieved impressive visitor numbers despite some fairly serious limitations because there are a lot of things it doesn't have: an airport, for example; five-star accommodation (although that is on its way); a big concert venue; and - some might say - a thriving nighttime economy.

'The lack of an airport is one of the biggest challenges,' says Gillian Cruddas, chief executive of Visit York. 'For the European short break and conference market we're under an hour from an international airport. So we were delighted when the York AirCoach started (a bus service created to improve links with Leeds Bradford International Airport and encourage tourists to visit York); and Robin Hood Airport at Doncaster has helped us. But all the new airports and airlines immediately concentrate on getting people out before they start to think about getting people in. It's more expensive for them to promote York or Leeds or wherever as a European destination.'

'Wherever you walk around York you get the feeling that it's an historic city.'

What York does have is unique: the Minster, surely the city's number one attraction; acres of history ('Americans LOVE York,' says Gillian); shopping in Fact file York racecourse is widely regarded as the best in the North. York is a flat only racecourse that provides 15 days of racing from May to October, and is a host to three Group One races, other Pattern races and famous handicaps (equates to 9 per cent of the top 1.5 per cent of all races). Only Doncaster because of (the St Leger) and Aintree for (The National) could claim to rival it.

York's medieval walls are the longest in England - and every year 2.5 million people walk along them. York is reputed to be the most haunted city in the whole of Europe. The Grey Lady is supposed to haunt a room behind the dress circle of the Theatre Royal. Historical figures abound in York: Guy Fawkes was born here and Dick Turpin was hanged at York Racecourse in 1739.

York Minster is the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe and took 252 years to build picturesque cobbled streets; the Jorvik Viking Centre, the National Railway Museum and York Castle Museum. The fact that it's also a gateway to the Dales and the East Coast can't hurt, either.

In 2007, York won European Tourism City of the Year at the European Tourism Cities Awards, beating off competition from other finalists, Gothenburg and Valencia. The Award was presented to Gillian at a ceremony in Athens. 'What the judges liked about York was that it was compact and friendly,' says Gillian, 'and wherever you walk around York you get the feeling that it's an historic city. It doesn't have any industrial areas, really. I suppose it ticked all the boxes for them.'

In May, there was more cause for celebration in the tourism offices when the TripAdvisor website announced the winners of its 2008 Travellers' Choice Destination Awards, based on the opinions of millions of travellers across the world. York came a respectable 54th, ahead, surprisingly, of London, Paris and Rome. Which all sounds pretty good.

So what is York's standing in the world these days? What is its reputation like overseas? The figures aren't that encouraging: almost 70,000 Germans, 10,500 Belgians and over 33,000 Dutch people came to York in 2007; but that's peanuts when you compare it to the overall figures of 3.3m Germans, 1.1m Belgians and 1.7m Dutch who visit the UK every year.

'Our "share" has gone down steadily over recent years,' admits Gillian. 'Only 15 per cent of visitors are from overseas. That's partly to do with the pound/dollar exchange rate, although it's working slightly in our favour with regards to the pound/Euro. The challenge we have is to convince international tourists that York is good value for money. And it's about changing people's perceptions and telling them that we're not just a place to call on for a couple of hours. Because if you look on the map, compared to Manchester and Edinburgh, say, our dot quite small.

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