Delighted to see that David Cameron is such a strong supporter of tourism. We have a long way to go to break the cultural snobbery that separates the staples of the UK industry – catering, accommodation, tour guides, campsites, postcards, guidebooks, souvenirs and so on – from middle class respectability. It’s better than it was, but sometimes it seems that the shame of engagement can only be tempered by calling it art, and littering the countryside with half-baked works whose cost might have been more creatively and productively deployed by addressing the needs of tourists instead of interfering with their experiences.
Anyway, as Cameron said in his speech yesterday, “Tourism is a fiercely competitive market, requiring skills, talent, enterprise and a government that backs Britain”. This was set in the context of the 2012 Olympics – as was the new visitor centre for Stonehenge when proposed by the last government.
What with Snowdonia, Devon and Cornwall, the Lake District, Norfolk, the Inner Hebrides, the Highlands of Scotland, the canals of Staffordshire, Oban, Llandudno, Torquay, Deal, “our historic monuments, our castles, country houses, churches, theatres and festivals… beautiful beaches… national parks, our hundreds of historic gardens and national network of waterways… our museums [including the British Museum, the National Gallery and the [sic] Tate Modern]… Glyndebourne and Glastonbury… the Bristol Old Vic and the Edinburgh Fringe. The Bodleian Library and the Hay literary festival. Ascot and the Millennium Stadium; Nelson’s column and the Olympic Park’s Orbit” – phew! – Cameron had no time to mention Stonehenge.
But I’m sure he had Stonehenge in mind, not least when he praised John Penrose, minister for tourism and heritage for the skills he brings to the job. After the Treasury took such pleasure in June in claiming to cancel the Stonehenge project – an action in fact not within its powers – it was sensitive of Cameron to avoid mentioning the stones. So let’s say it for him.
• Stonehenge is one of the world’s most recognisable icons of cultural history (“When I asked what England meant to them, the answers went: Stonehenge, Harry Potter, fish and chips…”: Blake Morrison talking to Japanese schoolgirls in 2002).
• Stonehenge is one of the UK’s most popular and must-see tourist destinations, attracting around a million visitors a year, of whom 50–60% are international.
• Stonehenge’s present state has long been agreed by parliament and international commentators to be a disgrace.
• An imaginative, creative plan to transform visitors’ experiences – from access and parking to a new museum, toilets and cafe – and Stonehenge itself, by removing roads nearby, has planning consent and is ready to start.
• This plan was designed to be cheap and cost-effective by the previous government, after it dropped a more ambitious scheme, and ready in time for the 2012 Olympics. But now that the Treasury has withdrawn its promise of £10m, it needs new sources of funding to happen.
• Stonehenge is Stonehenge. Picture Post put it on its cover in 1947 to lead an issue devoted to the post-war crisis. Stonehenge could now be a symbol for us and the world, of reflection, regeneration and creativity in the face of the modern crisis.
“Can we seize the opportunity”, said Cameron, “of this great decade of sport – and especially the Olympics – to deliver a lasting tourism legacy for the whole country and not just here in London?”