Remember how baffled everyone was when the council decided to shut the tourism information centre at the city’s railway station and move it to the art gallery’s shop?
“Ridiculous … idiotic … ludicrous … leave it where it is,” summed up the general response to the decision.
It seems they had a point.
Figures released by the council earlier this month show a dramatic decline in the use of the service following the move from the concourse of the busiest rail station in the north of England to a relative backwater in the city.
The service lost over two thirds of its users in its first year of operation at the art gallery shop, down from 490,000 to 150,000, and fell further in the second year to 114,000.
In January 2015, the month before the move, 34,500 people visited the centre. In January 2017 the number had crashed to 6,300.
The collapse in the numbers using the service has coincided with a boom in the numbers of people visiting the city, rising 5% in two years to 26.21 million “tourism visits” in 2015.
When the decision was taken, the council promised a review within 12 months to see how the move had gone. Guys, if you’re still thinking about it, don’t bother. It hasn’t gone well.
Time to pull the plug?
To be fair, the cash-strapped council was in a bind when it decided on the move two years ago: its lease at the station was up for expensive renewal; the city’s (now defunct and discredited) investment and tourism quango, Leeds and Partners, wanted shut of the service; and face-to-face tourism services all over the country were already losing out big time to online.
It’s a national trend. Councils have no statutory obligation to provide visitor centres, so they’ve been paring them down or shutting them for years now.
In light of the dismal figures above, maybe it’s time for councils like Leeds to pull the plug on tourism services and let the private sector take over.
Privatisation? Let’s not be squeamish.
Here in Leeds (as in most other major cities) we’ve had some of the council’s meet-and-greet, marketing and promotional functions ceded to the local business organisation, the Business Improvement District.
BIDs (here and elsewhere) sub that tourism work out to private companies like The Welcome People whose jolly, bowler-hatted droogs now offer identikit “street concierge services” throughout the country (you can tell what city you’re in by the colour of the hatband).
Maybe now’s the time for the council to think about ditching the visitor centre, throw in the council-run tourism websites for good measure, and just do what it HAS to do (what the private sector can’t). It could save a bit of cash.
It won’t happen yet, of course. We can’t be seen to be cutting back on tourism services while we’re monomaniacally pursuing the bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2023.
So the agony of the Leeds Visitor Centre will be prolonged. But if the bid isn’t successful, maybe then we can put it out of its misery.