The Ordnance Survey recently gave the world a glimpse into their map sales.
The worst, and best, selling OS maps of the UK were laid bare: 1.7m paper copies of their maps are sold annually. The slimmest sliver of that demand is for the starkly remote Glen Cassley and Glen Oykel of northern Scotland. Topping the tables was Snowdonia and Conwy Valley – selling 180 more times than the least popular plan of the Highlands. Snowdonia has been an ever-popular outdoor destination in the UK but this map data lends weight to the evolving brand perception of Wales, and the adventure destination prospects of the North and South.
As Destination Consultants, we’re often at the table in discussions around place branding, marketing and product development. A common refrain will point to the Bilbao-Guggenheim effect for cultural-led tourism. Clients will say ‘Why can’t we do that?’. When it comes to outdoor destinations, Snowdonia is now often referenced as an aspirational benchmark – ‘we want to be known like Boulder Colorado, like Queensland New Zealand, like Snowdonia’. The natural assets of north west Wales are the fundamental building blocks for this reputation, but the step change in perception as an adventure activity destination has been ratcheted up by private and public sector investment in adventure attractions, and experiences, that create a compelling visitor offer, and are being delivered with commercial success.
Some of the newer investment from the private sector like ZipWorld and Adventure Parc Snowdonia is a large part entrepreneurialism, but also part government strategy. At a national level, Welsh Government has been driving a tourism strategy (2013-2020) anchored by product development. The plan is a product-led approach to developing and marketing tourism in Wales. There has been strategic support for relevant projects, and potential for capital grant funding. This has been coupled with powerful thematic marketing year on year – 2016 was the Year of Adventure, 2017 was Year of Legends and 2018 Year of the Sea. Anecdotally, I feel this has helped make a tangible difference for the destination brand of Wales as a whole, and Snowdonia in particular. I increasingly hear it from clients and industry professionals as a point of reference.
And what of south Wales? There has also been a raft of product-led proposals in the adventure activity sector, and certain contextual factors point to some advantages. South Wales has the higher population density (albeit still modest), better road access with the M4 corridor and significant transport plays such as Qatar Airways at Cardiff Airport, and the scrapping of tolls on the Severn Bridge in late 2018 made accessibility even better.
Right product, right location
The challenge though lies in having the right product-location fit. A good example is Bike Park Wales, a purpose-built mountain bike trail centre near Merthyr Tydfil. With paid access to 28 different trails and paid uplift in vans, it is a category-leader in the UK. It takes advantage of the natural hill-side terrain, is well located between the Brecon Beacons and the day visit potential of residents in south wales and England. At less than £2m capital investment it wasn’t overly expensive and reports around 70,000 visits per year – which is good going for a paid-entry outdoor activity offer in the UK. The offer is relevant to the place, is affordable, popular and was relatively low risk in development – with modest destination impact. Zip World Tower, opening in 2021, looks to be another good fit, repurposing a former coal mine with a range of zipline experiences.
At the bigger end of the scale, there have been a number of struggled attempts to deliver adventure resort projects like Rhydycar West, at Merthyr Tydfil, and Afan Valley Adventure Resort in the south. The strategy here was to provide a critical mass of adventure activities in an accommodation-led resort setting. The accommodation-approach is essential to overcome the relatively limited catchment sizes available in both locations and has to be viable in its own right. The activity attractions also need to survive beyond their resort populations. The big projects costing hundreds of millions can bring big rewards but the product-location fit has to be a sure thing to make the level of risk attractive to investors. The ill-fated £430m Circuit of Wales project is a case in point – but the less said about that the better.
Not every area can be an adventure destination, but the effort to become one is bringing a buzz to many across Wales. Perhaps the OS map sales for the south will catch those of Snowdonia on the back of well-considered, viable product development? But spare a thought for Glens Cassley and Oykel, where no doubt the remote solitude is welcome.
This article was originally produced for the Colliers Bristol Spotlight magazine.
About the author
Matt Hyslop is a specialist in creating successful destinations by giving strategic advice to owners, developers, investors and operators of visitor attractions in the UK and internationally.
To contact Matt, email Matthew.Hyslop@colliers.com