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York tourism revenue set to double in size within seven years through foreign visitors

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 July 2018

York Medial a new festival will run for 10 days from late September

York Medial a new festival will run for 10 days from late September

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One of the most visited cities in the country is on track with its cultural mission. Richard Darn reports.

The grandeur of York Minster attracts visitors from around the world Photo: Joan RussellThe grandeur of York Minster attracts visitors from around the world Photo: Joan Russell

I fell in love with York on a wet winter’s evening a long time ago. Walking down a deserted Stonegate, flanked by medieval buildings with the street lights reflecting on rain dashed pavements, it looked timeless and beautiful.

I was smitten. And this is how I still love this extraordinary city – in its quieter moments, when the crowds have gone home and I can have it to myself.

But that’s a wee bit selfish, for this is perhaps the greatest historic British city of its kind. Even 1700 years ago it was deemed fit for a king (Constantine was proclaimed ruler of the Western Roman Empire here in 306 AD) and you won’t be surprised to learn that seven million people share my enthusiasm and visit every year.

Gazing at Constantine’s statue on his throne just outside York Minster, I remembered the jibe of writer and poet Humbert Wolfe directed at London ‘York was a capital city when you were just a nameless stew’.

There’s a plan to promote York Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates Photo: AlamyThere’s a plan to promote York Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates Photo: Alamy

But whereas in the past pilgrimages, trains and chocolate earned this city its crust, it is now tourism, contributing £500 million to the local economy and supporting 20,000 jobs. In fact on busy weekends it looks like York has a people management problem with the streets crammed – almost like Venice where city chiefs have raised the spectre of limiting numbers.

But no such drastic measures are required here for much to my surprise York is only seventeenth in the league of most visited British cities for over night stays by foreign tourists (Office for National Statistics, 2016), but is in the top six for UK visitors. I find that surprising and so do local tourism leaders who want to see the city pull ahead of the competition.

The local destination agency, Make It York, has nailed its colours to the mast and is working towards the goal of doubling the tourism sector to over £1 billion by 2025. That’s an ambitious target and to achieve that kind of growth they have unveiled a package of arts, culture and heritage events worthy of a world class attraction.

This summer the city plays host to Europe’s first pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theatre featuring four of the Bard’s greatest plays (including Richard III appropriately enough). And showcasing York’s status as a UNESCO city of media arts, a new festival will run for 10 days from late September.

All this is in addition to other popular festivals including St Nicholas Fair and celebrations as diverse as ballooning, food, early music, horticulture, Vikings, not to mention the stupendous and eclectic Festival of Ideas.

In fact there are no less than 19 such events this year in the city. ‘There seems to be a frenzy of festivals, but behind all of this there is also a serious amount of strategy work taking place,’ explained Steve Brown, managing director of Make It York. ‘A key priority going forward is to create a truly ambitious vision and plan for the city’s cultural future.’

Marketing drives are targeting big overseas markets including China, Europe and the USA and younger visitors enticed with augmented reality apps. There’s even a plan to promote York racecourse in the United Arab Emirates. Make it York also supports innovative local businesses, the conference trade and inward investment, with a strong slant on the creative, media and technology sectors.

You might think they are pushing at an open door given York’s popularity – the city has grown significantly since I studied here (the university now has five time more students, plus a second campus) and it was named the best place to live in the UK by one national newspaper.

But just how sustainable are the plans for growth? The road network is maxed out during busy periods with historic buildings and a medieval street pattern severely limiting scope for expansion. Will pursuing tourism targets take the edge of the York experience for both visitors and residents? ‘Part of the challenge is to get people who do come to stay for longer and even out the flow over the whole year by staging festivals and events where there are gaps in the calendar,’ adds Steve Brown.

‘The objective to achieve a £1 billion tourism sector was set a few years ago and whilst it’s aspirational we are on track. York is such an attractive destination, with such a wide appeal that the biggest danger is complacency.

‘Many other UK cities have significantly raised their game in recent years. Hull had a spectacular year as City of Culture and places like Leeds and Liverpool are far more attractive. We need to work hard to keep the magical appeal of York in the limelight.’

Whatever the competition, I doubt York will ever be trumped for elegance - it’s the one place in the north that truly looks likes a capital city and it deserves a grand vision.

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