Gower needs to develop own brand

John Ashley reports on an IWA debate on the future of a neglected region of Wales

Gower became the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain in 1956 – “a precious landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them.” Has Gower been an AONB for so long it is taken for granted? At the end of January the Swansea Bay branch of the IWA organised its second forum on this question at the Oldwalls hotel near Llanrhidian. An earlier meeting, in September 2009, had asked whether we were making the most of Gower as an Area of Outstanding Beauty. This time our discussion focused on creating a sustainable vision for Gower.

IWA Offers a perspective on Rural Affairs

The IWA’s Swansea Bay branch will be hosting a lunch-time meeting at the Marriot Hotel in Swansea on Wednesday 6 March. Meurig Raymond, Deputy President of the National Farmers’ Union, and regeneration experts from the City & County of Swansea will present an up to date perspective on the issues that this industry sector faces, and to share their thinking on the core strategies needed to secure a strong future for farming, agriculture, animal husbandry and rural diversifications. For details of how to book, click here.

Perhaps it was the change in emphasis from exploitation to creation that left behind the sometimes bad-tempered 2009 meeting, characterised by clashes between tourism businesses and farmers on one hand, and conservationists and walkers on the other. Nearly 120 crowded out the Oldwalls hall, some standing and with overflow on the stairs from reception. The forum was lively, and most importantly expressed a clearly declared desire to identify and take steps to create that sustainable future.

Courtney Grove of Horton is a member of one of Gower’s oldest farming families. He and his brother are fifth generation Port Eynon life boatmen. His grandfather, a blacksmith, was lost in the 1916 lifeboat disaster. He told us of young people being driven away from family businesses by unaffordable housing, and of second homes lying fallow for most of the year. We also heard a phrase that must be key to creating sustainability – “Visitors love Gower as much as us.”

Alison Tucker’s family runs the magnificent herd of Charolais at Horton. Her children are the ninth generation of Tuckers on the farm. Alison talked of the decline in dairy farming on Gower, and the bleak alternatives many farmers face. She made an impassioned and passionate plea for a way to be found for her children to stay with the family and work in Gower. “Farmers need to work in conjunction with all other businesses,” she said. “We need a new independent body to look at the needs of all Gower residents – especially housing.”

Marion Walters runs the five Blaen Cedi Farm Holiday Cottages at Penclawdd. She talked about what visitors want through the questions they ask – where are the best beaches and walks, where to eat, nearest pub, what to do on a rainy day, where else to go? Though the cottages are self-catering most visitors take at least one meal out, and she encourages them to buy local foods. “Guests always say how lovely the people are,” she reported.

On the downside, however, she said litter throughout Gower was horrendous, signage poor, and education in the history and specialness of Gower largely lacking in the area’s schools. Crucially, she said,  “Swansea is apart from Gower.” This became the major theme of the forum.

Terry Stevens, managing director of Stevens & Associates, is a former Director of Tourism for West Glamorgan. He lives in Loughor, outside the AONB but in the Lordship of Gower. He brought the perspective of the tourism professional to the discussion and developed the ‘Swansea is apart from Gower’ theme. There is no clear message of what we want from tourism in Gower. In the last 30 years Gower hotel rooms have declined markedly in contrast to new cheap rooms in Swansea catering for the ‘stag and hen’ market. Terry concluded that the Gower brand was not working. He said we should be looking for high yield low volume tourism, adding value in jobs created. As he put it, “Unless we change, more of the same will deliver more of the same.”

The following gives a flavour of the debate that ensued:

  • “We won’t get anywhere individually – one voice is needed.”“A new independent body.”
  • “Mumbles is in decline for the same reasons as Gower – it is apart from Swansea.”
  • “Tourists want to see seascapes, not the Atlantic Array offshore wind farm.”
  • “No one is marketing Gower strongly – it is well down Swansea Council’s list.”
  • “Tourism is Number 1 in Pembrokeshire.”
  • “Business Improvement Districts in Scotland have made a difference.”
  • “Poor performance of Swansea City and Welsh Government marketing Gower.”
  • “Nobody will fight your corner other than you.”
  • “In Loch Ness a series of communities lacking a common vision came together four years ago and created ‘Visit Loch Ness’.”
  • “Aviemore brought the ‘bits’ together into one voice.”
  • “It is not just tourism, but living and working together in Gower.”
  • “Swansea does not do anything for Gower tourism.”
  • “Swansea sells Gower as a wonderful place to come to, but does nothing to support it.”
  • “They don’t want anything to happen in Gower.”
  • “Swansea is one of the worst councils to deal with in the UK for planning permission – it is downright awkward.”
  • “Planning needs to be more sympathetic to the needs of local youngsters and businesses.”

This is but a taster of the views expressed. While there was not necessarily a consensus on all the problems and solutions – the old conflicts of interest still simmer but did not surface on the night – there was a strong feeling that we have to help ourselves. Those people in the big white house on Swansea waterfront aren’t likely to do a lot. No one from the white house was there to say otherwise. An encouraging aspect was representation at the meeting of a wide variety of small businesses  operating in Gower, from charcoal and bush craft to a sawmill and software.

And so to action. A Gower Business Improvement District based on the Scottish models was mooted and acclaimed. Volunteers came forward for the next steps, to be facilitated by the IWA. Unlike the 2009 event, the meeting broke up with a plan. ClickonWales will continue to report progress and encourage participation.

John Ashley is an IWA Swansea Bay committee member and the author of Ashley’s Walks Around Swansea and Gower.

3 thoughts on “Gower needs to develop own brand

  1. The debate in the Gower is encouraging, but poses the question as to whether or not enough is being done in Wales to foster the wise stewardship of the natural and historic environment in Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONB’s), and encouraging more active involvement at the local level.

    These areas are not national parks per se, but the laws underlying the establishment of national parks and AONB’s are remarkably alike in intent and effect. AONB’s in Wales include the Gower, parts of Lleyn and Anglesey, the Clwydian Hils, and a shared AONB with England in the Wye Valley.

    Recently, the boundaries of the Clwydian AONB were expanded to include the valley of the Afon Dyfrdwy and part of the Berwyn Hills. This suggests that the idea behind AONB’s is not moribund in Wales, although I am mystified why the Ceiriog valley was excluded given its reputation as “a little bit of Heaven on Earth.” (http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/english/leisure_tourism/Wrexham_Tour/Content/ceiriog_still.htm).

    There is a danger that general discussion of AONB’s in Wales could be shunted into a siding as Cardiff grapples with proposed new laws legislation and administrative structures governing the environment and natural resources. The current debate in Gower raises the profile of this AONB. Perhaps similar initiatives are needed for other AONB’s in Wales. It’s all very well to “designate” special areas for protection, but on-the-ground management of such areas needs to be sensitive to local interests where continuous and open dialogue forms an important part of the equation.

  2. David Bowen comments and makes a request..

    I attended the IWA event. I am running a university research project at Oxford Brookes University (OBU) on tourists who visit familiar places (like Gower) on holiday.

    John Ashley’s report is interesting and the agreement at the end of the meeting for some action based around a Gower Business Improvement District seems encouraging. Our OBU research project in no way doubles up on that initiative although, of course, it would be great if something we suggest could help it along the way.

    Despite some worries expressed at the IWA event, many tourists see Gower as a place they are familiar with and want to return to time and again.

    What are the reasons for that? What is the benefit for tourists, for businesses, and for local people? If there is a benefit, how can we keep those tourists coming to Gower, and get others to do the same?

    Are you somehow involved in tourism in Gower, or elsewhere? Are you interested in our research? If so, please email for further details: [email protected]

    You do not need to be an expert, although if you are that is great, just somebody who can give 30 minutes or so of your time to chat through your ideas. Eventually, our project will share its overall findings and we hope that it will help Gower, in some small way, to become as good a place as possible to live and work and visit.

  3. Interesting reading..
    As a ‘tourist’ I can honestly say that the Gower is a very special place, and my thoughts are based purely on what I see.. We are a family of 6 and have spent our last four holidays there, away from the hustle of Swansea. We feel it is ‘home’ to us and a place that we come to rejuvenate. We have used many of the local businesses, from rock climbing with Rip n Rock to the garage in Llandewi, eaten in many of the pubs and Bistro’s and met some lovely people. One thing I would say is that it seems that local businesses are in a continuous battle with the Gower Society, with far too many rules about what they can and can’t do. Not being able to put up a white marquee because its the wrong colour, or a sign advertising their business, these kind of things stifle an area and don’t allow it to grow enough to support local people. I understand that the GS doesn’t want the area to become like Cornwall or Devon and that I completely understand, but there has to be a compromise. You can’t attract more visitors to support local people without giving them plenty to do, otherwise they will spend their money in Swansea and other area’s. As a family we plan to move to Gower from Bedfordshire within a couple of years, and will eventually start a business employing local people, using local suppliers. I just hope that too many hurdles aren’t placed in the way of enterprise….

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