Re-open a Tourist Information Centre, Lib Dems urge

January 12, 2017 11:21 AM
Tourist InformationNewcastle City Council was asked to note the many critical comments on social media, Trip Advisor etc about there no longer being a tourist information centre in the city, and to request the Cabinet to review and reconsider the situation, including the possibility of establishing a centre in the Laing Art Gallery where there is already a shop facility and onsite staff, if necessary with private sector sponsorship.
Most of the Labour Party voted against this modest, potentially cost free, proposal, although their more thoughtful councillors supported the motion or abstained.
Moving the motion, Cllr David Faulkner said :
Just a few years ago, the City Council played a positive role in tourism, being responsible for the tourism infrastructure such as signage and of course visitor information centres of which we had two, with NewcastleGateshead Initiative responsible for marketing and promotions.
The centre in the Guildhall was closed when Quayside footfall reduced but I never imagined a day when a city of the size and importance of Newcastle, and where tourism is growing, would have no visitor information centre at all. But just two years ago the other centre, with entrances on market street and the central arcade, was closed. We were told that we were locked into a lease that was too expensive, and there were too many staff employed, making it unviable. Nearly two years on and the Market Street premises are empty and looking shabby - I wonder if we are still paying rent, or whether we are being prevented from reassigning the lease? - perhaps the Cabinet Member might let us know, I would be grateful.
Later on, a new argument was deployed - everyone does their visit planning online now, so we don't need one anyway. Maybe for their hotel bookings - and many of us have been doing that for years of course - it was rare for people to turn up at the centre without accommodation, that never was the main purpose.
It was about people who had arrived in the city and whose needs were different - could they have a map?; what should they visit?; what events were on?; could they buy a souvenir of the city?
We think people still want this kind of information service and expect a city the size of Newcastle to have somewhere they can go for it, a regional capital, promoting ourselves strongly (and successfully) for short-stay tourism. Look at the Trip Advisor comments I have used in the motion - this is what the public is telling us too. And when the Evening Chronicle ran a piece about the motion, 90% of the reader comments were supportive.
I often compare us with Nottingham - another one of the core cities, same size and similar regional role, similar pressure on funding - but with an award-winning Tourism Centre. Many places that don't have an international airport, or a mainline rail station or an international ferry terminal to get people to their location, provide an undeniably better service to tourists when they arrive than we do.
It's very sad when we have a first class visitor experience to offer that we are proving a second class service to those who do come. The council often throws around the word "ambition" but I see none here.
And here's a new factor to throw into the argument since I originally drafted the motion - the award of the Great North Exhibition for next year. We're told that we can expect hundreds of thousands of extra visitors because of the fantastic programme being put in place. Well won't they be disappointed when they look for the visitor information centre?
But there are alternatives we were told - the city library and the central station. Have you been there? As a tourist? The railway station kiosk is run by Virgin Rail about their services with a few city information leaflets spread around the counter. In the library the visitor has to queue (and I do mean queue) alongside all the folks with library or other information queries and the hard-pressed staff can barely cope. And there's a leaflet dispenser actually tucked away behind the main entrance - it really is hard to spot.
We aren't asking for an expensive new centre - or any kind of new centre. We can piggy back on existing facilities better than we do now - Tyne and Wear Museums at both Discovery and The Laing have dedicated reception staff, information about their own attractions and sell a range of gifts - in fact the Laing has two trading areas. It's centrally situated, and open 7 days a week. Let's have a fresh look at whether it could be expanded to become a tourist information centre better than the kiosk approach that we have now that is frankly not fit for purpose. Can we not talk to NE1 the Business Improvement District Company (I declare an interest as a Board Member) or to individual businesses that may be interested in sponsorship?
It's meant as a friendly motion so I hope for a positive and supportive response. We can do better.

Cllr Pauline Allen, seconding the motion, said:

According to the Visit England website "You'll find Tourist Information Centres in convenient locations across England - these experts on the local area are the ideal first port of call to help you get the most out of your visit.

Pop in for friendly, reliable advice on everything from where to get the best pint and find the newest boutique shops to where to park for local attractions. TIC staff have an in-depth knowledge of the area and will not only be able to help you with things like booking the best B&B for you but give you all kinds of insider tips for discovering the area's hidden gems too.

If you're planning on staying for a day, a weekend break or longer, TIC staff will help make your visit as good as it can be. You can chat to them over the phone, online or in person."

Then would-be visitors look for the Tourist Information Centre in Newcastle. And as we see from the comments mentioned in the motion they are unable to find one and are left feeling puzzled. The NewcastleGateshead website is good but it is only a starting point, we need a place in the city centre where people can "pop in for friendly, reliable advice" as Visit England comment.

Many of us in this chamber probably use TICs throughout the country. I do, as like an increasing number of people, we usually holiday in the UK as we like to take our dog with us. And I greatly value the help and advice I've been given over the years from very helpful staff in Tourist Information Centres from various parts of England, Scotland and Wales. Staff are usually very pleased to be able to tell us about the attractions in their local area. And I would expect that people arriving in Newcastle from anywhere in the country, or indeed anywhere in the world, to be helped in the same way. Local knowledge and suggestions about events and attractions can make a holiday a much more enjoyable one.

I know that many of us do what we can to help guide visitors around the city. I've stopped to help people who look like they needed help and I've seen many others do the same. Fortunately, we live in a friendly city with many attractions and that is what brings people here to visit but I feel that we need to do more to help visitors.

If we really value the contribution that tourists can make to Newcastle, and personally I do, especially as I think that we have a great city, we

need to help them find their way around and give them the assistance we expect when we visit other areas. Yes, we know that there isn't a lot of money around but if we want people to come and use our hotels and shops, which will boost our local economy, we need to encourage them by offering the help and advice that staff in a Tourist Information Centre can give. Surely at the end of the day tourists will spend more in our city than a tourist information centre would cost, especially if we locate it somewhere like the Laing Art Gallery.

Currently I feel that visitors to our city are being undervalued and left confused, for example did you know that there are still road signs in the city directing people to a tourist information centre that doesn't exist! Surely, I'm not the only one to think that this is daft as well as very confusing for visitors.

And in support, Cllr Robin Ashby said:

In business trips around cities of Europe, one of the first things I do is to look for the familiar Tourist Information sign. What I get there gives me more confidence to navigate around and find places where I can obtain goods and services. I find you can't beat a person or paper map or leaflet rather than a tiny screen, especially when you are a spender of the "grey pound" (or euro).

It works the other way round. If tourists and business visitors don't find the sort of facility that available in all the great cities (and many smaller towns) across Europe in particular, it sends out an immediate message that we aren't interested in them and their business.

You never get a second chance to amke a first impresssion. A Tourist Information Centre is a very important way to show Newcastle as an open and welcoming city - and it's good for the local economy.