When it comes to rustic hospitality, I think I can put myself forward as a bit of an expert. For almost every week in the past 20 years I’ve ate, drank and laid my hat in countless rural hotels, pubs and B&Bs as I’ve journeyed around the country for Countryfile. It has to be said that when I started my travels, conditions weren’t always great – bland food and ropey rooms were the norm. How things have changed. Nowadays, when our small team sits down to an evening meal in a village pub, the food is generally good, sometimes excellent, and usually good value for money. You often eat local produce too – when I sat down for breakfast while filming in the New Forest recently, the chef had named the farm where he had sourced the sausages and bacon, and just about every other item also hailed from nearby.
Great British breaks
But as I pull into yet another hotel’s car park I often wonder how our rural tourism industry will weather the storm clouds of the economic downturn. The answer, I believe, is this could actually be the big break for rural Britain. A recent survey by Shearings discovered that, to save money, 50 percent more of us are choosing to holiday at home compared to last year. What’s more, thanks to the weak pound, Britain has never been so affordable for visitors from abroad. While we might balk at high prices in the Eurozone, it’s increasingly cheaper for our American or European cousins to holiday here.
Tourism is vital to the rural economy. In 2001, when the countryside was virtually closed off during the foot and mouth crisis, many of us were surprised to learn that tourism was worth three times as much as agriculture. Farmers’ wives with their B&Bs had been propping up struggling farms, and when that income stopped the situation got even worse.
Fortunately both agriculture and rural tourism have risen from the literal ashes of that tragedy, and 2009 could be a good year for the British tourist industry. But the question has to be asked whether holidaying at home is always cheaper. I’m often astonished at how much we have to pay to spend the night in pretty average places. It seems to me that rates are much higher than for equivalent accommodation in many other countries. Margaret Hodge, the government’s tourism minister, has attacked the quality of UK hotels and attractions, saying: “Tourists need to be offered good deals and we have to make attractions better.”
Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, seems to agree. In a recent newspaper interview he condemned the “poor value for money” and “grumpy staff” of many hotels and restaurants. “We’ve had a period in which people could get away with not being of the highest quality,” he told the Independent. “But we’re now in an environment where you have to do quality.”
We all know that overheads are high (for example VAT is 5 percent in France compared to the temporary 15 percent here) and it can be difficult recruiting the right people. But when criticism like this comes from the top it has to be taken seriously; it must be a wake-up call to do better.
Thankfully, on my travels the ghost of Basil Fawlty has largely been banished. I don’t come across many grumpy staff, and despite the sometimes outrageous charges for a night’s sleep, I have many happy and funny memories of staying in hundreds of country pubs and hotels. Like the time in Wales when the lady behind reception informed me she had only two rooms left. One had a shower and the other, with a bath, was more expensive. “What’s the difference?” I asked, ready to weigh up the cost. “Well,” she replied in all seriousness, “you have to stand up in a shower!” Rural tourism is now a major industry. With more people taking their responsibilities as hosts seriously and more thought about accommodation costs, the countryside is better placed to cope with tourists and to give them a good time. Wouldn’t it be great if many more of us revelled in the nostalgic pleasure of returning to places where we spent childhood holidays to see how much, if anything, has changed? And if planeloads of extra visitors from abroad discovered that these crowded little islands have huge areas of almost empty landscape to be explored, who could complain? Like a cloud with a silver lining, the credit crunch could make all of this happen.