Back in 2003 when we were looking to move to south Wales, I well remember the words of one estate agent who said, “The Welsh are only just realising that you don’t have to live next door to where you work”. Looking at the topography of much of Wales, it is easy to understand the problems of travelling any distance before the advent of the motorcar and why this attitude arose. Unfortunately it seems to be deeply ingrained and I am still surprised by comments such as I get when travelling into Swansea to play Badminton – a mere 13 miles – “Oh you’ve come a long way”. For someone who has lived ‘near’ London for much of his adult life this is like ‘living next door’.
Another aspect of this, which is evident when you travel to many Welsh tourist attractions, is that many of the access roads are single track with passing places. Wales is a beautiful country with magnificent scenery to match anything you will find in the world. But travel isn’t easy and the dilemma is, of course, how do you improve access without destroying that beauty?
One answer might be public transport. Even a relatively small mini-bus is capable of replacing several cars. And then there are the trains – at least what remains of this once extensive system. And, thinking just a little bit further there are the planes which bring the overseas visitors to this glorious country.
I work as a volunteer at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the problem of increasing visitor numbers has exercised me considerably over the past few years. At the Garden we are lucky in that we are very close to the dual carriage A48, unlike other places such as Picton Gardens, where buses have to negotiate long narrow lanes. Unfortunately, however, we don’t have any direct public transport to the Garden from the major towns and cities, in particular nearby Swansea. Places like the National Wetlands Centre at Llanelli, Aberglasni Gardens and Dinefwr Castle suffer similarly. Several attempts have been made to improve public transport access but without any success.
One of the ideas behind the initiatives that have taken place concerning public transport is that by reducing the number of cars on the road we help the environment. Laudable as this may be, that effect will be infinitesimally small. Far more important is the fact that the increase in fuel prices has had a serious and damaging effect on both the economy and the ability of people to travel anywhere. Families think twice before making the ‘longer’ journeys and it profoundly affects the many unpaid volunteers on which so many institutions like the National Botanic Garden, the National Wetlands, Aberglasni, Picton Gardens and so on depend. As the manager of one centre said to me, “Where previously a volunteer came in twice a week, now he comes just the once”. Perhaps the French idea of reducing fuel tax isn’t so daft after all.
One initiative that has occurred in the past couple of years has been the Towy Valley Explorer – ‘the-bus-that-meets-the train’. This is a minibus service linking Llandeilo station on the Heart of Wales Line to Parc Dinefwr, the National Botanic Garden, Aberglasney and Dryslwyn Castle. It only costs £5 for adults, £2.50 for children, is free for under 5’s and comes with up to half-price entry to the attractions. Unfortunately it only operates on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer months. Admirable as it may be as an attempt to bring people from places like Shrewsbury, Cardiff and Swansea to these attractions, the numbers using the service is pitifully small.
From the beginning of the year to the end of August we only had 35 admissions to the National Botanic Garden as a result of Towy Valley Explorer. One reason for the low take-up last year was the need to pre-book by 4pm the previous day. This year you have until 8.30am the same day to book. The reality is, however, that that is still not good enough as people often decide where to go at the last minute. And this year more than ever those decisions have been weather dependent. (We desperately need better weather forecasts but that’s another matter).
The other reasons why this particular service has failed come down to time, money and convenience. In order to get to any station from your home it takes time, and then you have to park and pay for that if you travel by car, or otherwise are dependent on public transport or a taxi to get there. Then there is the travel time, both by train and then by bus. For a family of two adults and two children you really have to be very patient and very hard up to go through all the palaver that this involves. Nowadays most kids, for better or worse, aren’t used to these kinds of inconveniences. So the car is the only logical answer – and the economics don’t really stack up either.
Are there any solutions? In the short term given the current economic climate, probably not. But one thing that has become evident in what has been a very difficult year is that all the attractions are becoming increasingly desperate to attract trade. The result seems to be a race to the bottom which isn’t good for anyone, and it is doubtful as to whether it actually doesn’t increase visitor numbers overall.
Another issue is conflicting attractions. Arranging events which don’t conflict with other events on the same day seems to becoming increasingly difficult. You arrange an event well in advance on a day where nothing else is happening only to find nearer the time that several other events have also been arranged – or there is suddenly a rearranged rugby or football match – ok, nothing you can do about that.
My experience during the past few years is that although there are many admirable transport initiatives, we aren’t actually very good at coordinating and working together. And it is not just at the local level, but the national and, I think even more important, the international level as well. My recent attempt to garner funds for a particular venture was rejected partly on the basis that the National Garden of Wales wasn’t sufficiently national in what was described as ‘UK terms’. Elsewhere there have been comments that Wales hasn’t connected sufficiently with and taken advantage of the Olympics, and I would certainly second that. Here was an opportunity to connect with the wider world and show that Wales is more than just the ‘most beautiful part of England’.
One way forward would be if attractions throughout Wales actually tried to work together and plan their events – and advertise them jointly to the wider world. Of course, as I know only too well, most attractions simply do not have the manpower to do this on their own. Which is where the tourists boards and others at the national level need to step in.
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