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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Is the Lake District stealing north Cumbria’s thunder?

It’s the old argument that never seems to go away: Them and us, north v south. Except this issue isn’t about the state of the UK and how different life is north of Watford.

Victoria Farley photo
Victoria Farley at her new Hadrian's Wall visitor centre

This time it concerns the divide in Cumbria and how much attention is paid to tourism in the south of the county compared to that north of, say Bowness-on-Windermere.

Businesses in and around Carlisle, Keswick, Cockermouth, Penrith, Workington and Whitehaven have long complained that they don’t get as much attention or promotion from county tourism chiefs as those in the ‘honeypot’ south Lakes area.

Cumbria Tourism (CT) bosses have long denied that is the case and have insisted that the division of publicity has always been fair.

But the dispute flared again recently at the annual general meeting of the organisation.

Guesthouse owners Claire Shepherd and Sharon Helling spoke out saying the organisation was too focused on the south of the county.

Their complaint sparked the resignation of Nigel Wilkinson, managing director of Windermere Lake Cruises, from the CT commercial members committee.

Meanwhile, Victoria Farley who runs the Lanercost Tea Room with her husband Michael, has invested thousands of pounds to create her own tourist information centre.

New CT commercial committee chairman Simon Bennett, of Augill Castle, has already visited Mrs Shepherd, who owns and runs the Ouse Bridge House Hotel at Dubwath, near Keswick and Mrs Helling, who owns the Lakeside Country Guesthouse just by the shores of Bassenthwaite.

While they appreciate that more businesses from the south of the county are represented by the organisation, they still feel there is an imbalance.

“We shared our frustrations with him and talked about better communications channels,” says Mrs Shepherd.

“Something positive has come out of the meeting.

“It is important that members feel that for the money they pay, they have some input into where their money goes.

“Cumbria Tourism is a great brand and I’m optimistic for the future.

“I will continue to beat the north’s drum, but maybe not as passionately as at the AGM”

Mrs Farley, who was manager of Carlisle department store Hoopers for four years, has invested thousands of pounds in her information centre which opened this week.

She says: “We believe that Hadrian’s Wall needs more recognition to befit its World Heritage Site status, so we decided to do something about this for ourselves with the guidance of our friends at Hadrian’s Wall Trust.

“If you do feel passionately about something, you maybe do have to do something for yourself.

“I don’t have that much to do with Cumbria Tourism, they have to concentrate on the Lake District. I’m not saying we are overlooked, I’m not being critical, they can only do what they can do with their resources.

“But how many times do they talk about Hadrian’s Wall as a World Heritage site? It is not like having one successful child, but two successful children.

“It’s just wrong for them to concentrate on the one child as they overlook the other in doing so. Cumbria could have it both ways.

“It should be on the front page of the website. Are they Cumbria Tourism or Go Lakes?”

Golakes.com is the official visitor website run by Cumbria Tourism and boasts 4.3 million users a year.

The front page of the website features pictures of a swish hotel room that could be in Paris, Miami or London, but is in the Langdale Hotel and Spa, a beautiful view of Ennerdale and a picture of an Ullswater steamer.

Tourism pumps £2bn into the Cumbrian economy and provides about 47,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

Latest figures reveal that visitors to the county last year increased slightly to around 10 million, despite the slump in the country’s economy.

Eric Robson, chairman of Cumbria Tourism, says any sort of bias for the central or southern Lakes is wide of the mark, explaining: “I have been chairman for 10 years and for the vast majority of that time, the great investment in Cumbria has not been in central Lakes.

“The effort has gone into places like Carlisle, Eden Valley, the west coast and the Furness peninsula.

“We have to use the Lake District brand because it is the second-best known brand of the UK – only London is better known.

“What we are trying to do is use that to attract people to the region, then disperse them.

“Cumbria is not known as a brand, the Lake District is.”

An advertising campaign is due to be launched shortly in London to coincide with the Olympics and attract tourists to the Lakes and Cumbria.

The ads will be in Underground stations and “key transport hubs” in the capital.

The Wasdale-based author and broadcaster says that while Hadrian’s Wall has its own trust to promote it, there are strong links with Cumbria Tourism.

The organisation lost more than £1m in funding and half its staff when the Northwest Regional Development Agency was disbanded but Mr Robson adds: “We do our absolute damndest with reduced staff and resources.

“The amount of effort we have spent this year in promoting every corner of the Lakes is more than ever before.

“Tourism numbers for the past year increased against a background of appalling trading conditions.

“It was an unfortunate spat at the AGM based on a misapprehension, a mistake was made.”

Whitehaven Festival’s founder and chief executive Gerard Richardson dismisses any talk of preferential treatment to certain areas of the county by the tourism board.

“It is a daft little war that we don’t need. We get our visitors coming up from the Lakes, the last thing we want to do is wind up the hotels and tourist attractions down there.

“Most of the money is generated down south, if that is the case, then they should spend it down there.

“There are so many things to see and do in Cumbria, it is such a diverse area, but people know this county for the Lakes.

“You have to go for your unique selling point, get them hooked and build on that.

“The best thing in Cumbria has to be the Lakes, you have to attract people to the Lake District and we will all do well off that.

“But this is our area and it is for us to sell. I have never felt second best to anyone.”

Like Mrs Farley, Mrs Shepherd appreciates that ultimately, it is down to individual businesses to look after themselves, with or without the help of any outside organisation or authority.

“I have set up a local consortium of businesses under the label ‘Bassenthwaite, the hidden gem’ to try and promote it as a destination,” she says.

“I pay a fee to be a member of Cumbria Tourism and be part of their marketing.

“But you do have to go that extra mile sometimes.”

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