It’s now more than a year since Gill Haigh took the helm as managing director of Cumbria Tourism. Here she reveals that she is feeling optimistic about the tourism industry’s prospects in 2019.

The success of Cumbria’s visitor economy is an integral part of the wider county’s current and future success.

Cumbria Tourism’s most recent countywide research demonstrated that we welcomed 47 million visitors in 2017, made up of 6.6 million overnight stays. Approximately 14 per cent were international visitors.

Importantly, tourism contributed £2.9 billion to the economy and supported 65,000 jobs, which is around 20 per cent of the total jobs in the county.

Now with the Lake District designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, alongside Hadrian’s Wall, as well as a growth in international visitors via our northern gateways, multi-million pound private sector investments and a new airport for the county, we have a golden opportunity to significantly raise the profile of Cumbria as a world class destination and increase the value of tourism to the local economy.

Our particular focus is on growing the reputation of the county as an all-year-round destination, increasing the number of staying visitors and length of stays - both international and domestic – and increasing the spend per visitor.

We also want to increase the value of tourism to less well-known areas of the county, which is known as our ‘attract and disperse’ policy.

There are certainly lots of positive signs in the industry at the moment. Our latest Business Performance Survey reveals that 73 per cent of our tourism businesses will either exceed or match their performance compared to 2017. Meanwhile, 76 per cent reported returning customers as a positive factor and 44 per cent believed staycations are a big driver for growth.

At the same time, the survey also reveals some key challenges, not least concerns about the potential implications of Brexit and the ongoing need to ensure tourism business have the sufficient workforce and the right skills in place. Transport disruption, increasing operating costs and digital connectivity continue to be concerns and barriers for the tourism sector.

Understanding these issues is vital for driving genuine change and we will continue to put this research at the forefront of Cumbria Tourism’s vigorous lobbying work.

In recent months, this has included meetings with the Tourism Minister, the Transport Minister, the Home Office and the Minister responsible for the Northern Powerhouse project, as well as the county’s six MPs, VisitEngland and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

I was also invited to give evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, alongside a panel of other experts, on tourism and rural heritage issues.

The evidence we’ve gathered directly from businesses has also enabled us to successfully lobby for a £285,000 marketing campaign funded by the rail industry, which – subject to train services returning to normal – will get under way in the New Year.

Early 2019 will also see us continuing to promote the latest phase of #theplacetobe campaign, with the objective of driving much-needed trade during the winter months and encouraging longer stays across the county.

Last winter’s seasonal marketing activity reached a combined audience of more than 32 million, including the full spectrum of social media, travel features in national newspapers and 1.9 million eNewsletters to targeted customer databases.

So we have every reason to feel confident that this year’s campaign will also have a major impact on visitor perceptions of Cumbria as an all-year-round destination.

In 2019 we will also increase our international marketing activity, alongside our targeted domestic marketing. We are working in partnership with Marketing Manchester and Indian tour operators and overseas tourism organisations to make the most of the new non-stop flights from Mumbai to Manchester Airport.

Having recently won £250,000 from VisitEngland to deliver a ‘Northern World Heritage Collection’ project, which is raising awareness of our Northern World Heritage Sites to the American and Irish markets, we will continue to amplify our marketing to these markets.

Last month the Government announced new plans to enter into an official negotiation with the tourism industry for a ‘Tourism Sector Deal’, aimed at increasing productivity and driving economic growth. Described as a game-changer, the plans would officially recognise tourism as a globally competitive ‘industry of the future’ and put it at the top of the Government’s national policy agenda.

This chimes perfectly with Cumbria’s Tourism’s existing strategy to boost skills and to grow the value of tourism through higher-spending visitors. It is essential that we work together as a county - spanning both the private and public sectors - to ensure we seize this landmark moment.

I firmly believe that collaboration is the way for us to achieve great things. Over the past year, I have been out and about meeting tourism businesses, as well as a wide range of organisations who all recognise the value of tourism to our county’s economy.

I’ve also made it my mission to develop increasingly strong partnerships and relationships with government ministers, the Local Enterprise Partnership, local authorities and MPs.

I thank all those partners for their support this year and their continued alliance will be absolutely vital for helping us to retain a competitive edge as we forge ahead into 2019 and beyond.

Overall, I see Cumbria Tourism an ambitious and well-connected Destination Management Organisation, and I’m confident we are just at the start of a new phase of growth and success - firmly establishing our world-class county as the place to visit for both national and international visitors.

Our tourism member businesses are central to this success and I thank them for their continued support and dedication to our thriving tourism sector.