Members received an update on the impact of Covid-19 on the Tourism sector within Neath Port Talbot and the current and forthcoming activities of the Council’s Tourism Team.
Officers highlighted the significant negative impact that the outbreak of the pandemic had on the Tourism sector; the report detailed figures which showed a drop in the number of visitors (63.5%) and a decrease in economy (66.4%). It was noted that the data did not represent the full 12 months of 2020, and further lockdowns that were announced towards the end of the year will further impact this data.
Moving forward, one of the main focuses was stated to be looking into how the Tourism sector could be helped in order to recover from Covid-19; the past 12 months Officers had kept in touch with the tourism providers.
Members were informed that the Tourism Team had worked alongside the Business Teams to support all businesses across the sector to ensure that they were able to access all the financial support made available by UK and Welsh Government and any other grant support. It was noted that the accommodation approval process of key workers had also been managed by the Tourism Team, working in partnership with the Environmental Health Team, as all visitor accommodation were required to close in line with the various lockdowns; the approval process allowed access to those who had a valid reason for being in the area, those who were key workers and those who needed accommodation in an emergency.
It was mentioned that throughout the pandemic, Officers had a lot of collaboration with public sector partners, particularly with Visit Wales, and there had been liaison with organisations including Brecon Beacons National Park to ensure areas, such as the waterfalls, were being managed in the best way possible; these meetings and communications were continuing.
Officers provided an update on some of the Tourism sectors ongoing projects, which included:
· Vale of Neath Hub at Resolven Canal Car Park - the refurbishment of the former toilet block facility in Resolven had now been completed and the new occupier would be in place shortly;
· Afan Forest Park Visitor Centre Valleys Regional Park Gateway – the Council had gained funding to do a range of work including upgrading some existing facilities around the toilets and showers, adding in an additional car parking area, providing electric hook up points for camper vans, creating a digital information point for visitors, putting in extra lighting and building a children’s playground;
· Gnoll Park Master Plan – the development plan had been completed, and as stated in the circulated report the Tourism Team will now be working alongside colleagues at Gnoll Country Park to deliver the proposals;
· Destination Marketing – this campaign, to launch the new Neath Port Talbot place brand, was going to be a key piece of work going forward. It was mentioned that the launch date had been delayed due to the pandemic;
· Other – signage had been delivered at Aberavon Seafront, as well as the outdoor gym.
Members expressed their interest in being involved in the new Destination Management Plan at an early stage in order to feed into the review and renewal of the plan; it was also asked if at some point Members could have a preview of the new website. Officers confirmed that the Committee would have involvement with this work going forward, as previously agreed, including taking part in various workshops; due to Covid-19 and prioritisation of supporting the tourism sector through the pandemic, the Council was not yet able to launch the new plan.
It was asked, that once the pandemic was over, if the Committee could look back on the Tourism industry and how Covid-19 had affected it overall. It was mentioned that the primary source of data for this would be the STEAM statistics, which was a model used to measure consistently over the past 10+ years. Officers confirmed that they could also look into qualitative data. Members were informed that currently, no businesses had failed due to the pressures of the pandemic, and were just about surviving in the current climate.
Officers were asked if they had been receiving support from Visit Wales throughout the pandemic, to which it was confirmed that the Council had good working relationships with the organisation and were pleased with what had been achieved working with them so far.
Members queried whether the Committee could visit some of businesses that had been affected by Covid-19 when they re-opened. Officers mentioned that this could be arranged and that it would be a good way to show support.
It was stated that the lockdown periods had helped residents rediscover what Neath Port Talbot had to offer and that it was important, once restrictions were lifted, to ensure that non-local individuals discovered this as well through promoting the County Borough. Officers highlighted that the links between the tourism offer, sales within the County Borough and showing wider aspects of the area and what it had to offer were all important for underpinning the economic development offer; this was critical when attracting inward investment and selling buildings, land or properties to individuals. It was mentioned that changes had been made in terms of the way individuals could operate, and this was something that would continue; for example there were new ways of working, through systems such as Microsoft Teams, which allowed people to work from home, therefore provided them with the opportunity to live in different areas. It was added that this could potentially sell the County Borough to individuals and boost the economy in certain areas.
In relation to the outdoor gym at Aberavon Seafront, it was asked whether there was scope for more to be added throughout the County. Officers confirmed they would be monitoring the use of the gym at the seafront, and if it was well received could look into replicating them in various other spaces.
Members asked if Officers were aware of any organisations, particularly larger tourism organisations that had applied for the economic resilience fund. It was noted that Officers weren’t able to comment on individual cases in terms of the grant funding and there were some which didn’t qualify, however they were aware that the majority had been well received and the Business Team had worked well in getting money out to various different sectors. Members were informed that the economic resilience fund was just one type in a range of different pots of funding that businesses could apply for; there were also a number of factors that determined whether a business would be eligible for funding. It was mentioned that the reason there was so much focus on providing advice to businesses, was to help them navigate through the different options of funding and the steps they would need to go through in order to achieve funding. Officers added that there was a very small number of businesses in the County Borough who still hadn’t received any funding support; these were the smaller self-catering operators who didn’t currently meet the criteria.
A discussion took place in relation to plans for when restrictions were lifted as there were some concerns with the potential of the County having a lot of visitors when this happened and some residents had previously complained about the amount of people that were visiting certain areas. Officers explained that this was one of the reasons why they had held back with the marketing activities for specific destinations within the County, and that it would be confusing for individuals if the Council was to send out mix messages persuading people to visit the area, whilst also telling them they couldn’t visit the area. It was noted that conversations had taken place with Brecon Beacons National Park in relation to the waterfalls, as all waterfall country partners (including neighbouring Local Authorities) had agreed not to promote them, however there were large numbers of people still turning up to them; whilst the Council or partner organisations, such as Visit Wales, weren’t carrying out any marketing campaigns due to these factors, posts by the general public relating to these places on social media were encouraging people to visit and this was causing issues with the residents as they were unhappy with the number of tourists. It was stated that this was very difficult to manage and obtain the right balance, as the Council had no impact on the people sharing the posts on social medial; however, Officers were working with partners to try and manage the messages that were being put out to the public.
It was queried whether Officers were aware of any shortages on skills or labour workers. It was confirmed that Officers weren’t currently aware of any new shortages, although there would have been individuals who had left the industry; these sectors tend to be quite transient, with people entering and leaving frequently as this was the way in which the economy worked. The Committee was informed that it was difficult to predict shortages at a time in which businesses were letting go of staff rather than looking for them; however, there had always been a labour shortage in terms of chefs and service staff in the hospitality sector. It was added that this provided an opportunity for the tourism and hospitality sector, post Covid-19, to try and help recruit individuals into these jobs.
In regards to plans for events and festivals, Members were informed that that the Authority was not at the stage to take on events; however decisions would need to be made soon in regards to some of the larger scale events that the County holds every year, for example Neath Fair and Neath Food and Drink Festival; the reasoning for this was due to the approaching critical stage of getting a planning process in place, which takes around 4-5 months to complete. Officers highlighted that when the Tourism Team was established, they were allocated a sum of money for a very small event fund as part of their budget; the intention was to launch this with the new destination management plan, as it could potentially help with the recovery of events and festivals when it was appropriate to hold them. It was noted that Officers did not want to commit money to an event that could potentially be cancelled, or on the other hand put time and money into an event that would not be well attended, as people may not feel comfortable attending due to the amount of people these events involve and the close proximity of people; Officers confirmed that the situation would be monitored very closely.
The Committee received a brief update in relation to the Active Travel Plan; a full report would be provided at the next meeting of the Regeneration and Sustainable Development Scrutiny Committee which will detail where the money had been spent and how the active travel agenda was progressing. In terms of the active travel maps, Members were made aware that the integrated network map was in place, and had a mixture between short, medium and long term routes, some of which were aspirational; when the initial map was prepared, a conscious decision was made to put in a lot of aspirational routes in order to link better with the valley communities which were dispersed throughout the community. Subsequently, it was highlighted that Officers had put in bids to Welsh Government to seek funding to deliver those schemes, however to date had not been successful in obtaining these particular bids; Welsh Government were currently trying to acquire the numerical advantage of having schemes within the main centres of Neath, Port Talbot and Pontardawe as the population in the valley communities wasn’t sufficient enough to demonstrate value for money being spent on those routes. Members were informed that the map was being reviewed again this year, and there had been more guidance issued which Officers hoped would provide more flexibility in what routes Local Councillors could put forward; when going through this process, it could provide a basis for more successful schemes particularly in the valley areas. It was added that Officers were looking to expand the network for recreational routes and that the Welsh Transport Strategy was being reconsidered to consider the rural offer. Officers explained that an initial consultation had been carried out on the active travel maps, which received a good response; as the schemes come forward as part of the mapping process, Local Councillors will be involved.
Members highlighted that they were encouraging their communities to use the LEADER grant and asked if was there a way to simplify or change the process for receiving funding going forward, in order for the community groups, charities and other organisations to be able to use the funding to effectively deliver in the communities. Officers were aware that the application process had been simplified on the understanding that small community groups were finding the process difficult; funding under a certain threshold was now a very short application process and there were officers in post in the RDP team to provide support with filling out the application and the project delivery.
Following Scrutiny, the report was noted.