Fixing Oxford’s Broken Visitor Economy

Why regenerative travel holds the key to Oxford’s future

As the vaccine rollout continues and case numbers drop, the possibility of going on holiday once again seems tantalisingly close. The tourism industry in Oxford, as everywhere else, expects and desperately needsa surge in visitor numbers once travel resumes. However, there was much that was broken in the sector before the pandemic struck, and simply going back to how things were before is missing a vital opportunity for change.

Neo-classical circular library in honey-coloured stone
The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford ©Etain O’Carroll

Tourism supports about 14% of all jobs in Oxfordshire and the roughly eight million visitors who come here annually contribute about £1.9bn to the local economy. Yet when fewer than 40% of visitors are satisfied with their experience — and local residents resent their presence on the streets — something is fundamentally wrong.

In Oxford, as in Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Dubrovnik, overtourism has driven locals from the city centre and eroded the visitor experience, and if the industry continues to favour volume over value, then nothing will change.

We need a new model for tourism in Oxford, one that reframes the criteria for success, encourages sustainable development, and favours long-term goals over short-term promotions. A switch to a regenerative model of tourism — one that actively works to leave the city a better place — is crucial.

Regenerative travel is slower, more mindful and more immersive. It asks more of travellers and service providers, but protects the environment, disperses the crowds, and encourages longer stays with a more experiential focus.

It would require some difficult decisions, but would create a city that is a more attractive place to live, work and visit, an outcome that would drive growth rather than limit it. With thoughtful planning and a proactive, cross-community response, we can find that balance.

A group of tourists listening to a tour guide in the gardens of an Oxford college
A group of tourists listening to a tour guide in the gardens of an Oxford college
A group of tourists in the garden of Christ Church, Oxford ©Etain O’Carroll

Encouraging slow travel

Almost 85% of visitors to Oxford come on day trips. On a whirlwind tour they tick off the sights, tablets and selfie sticks held high as they and their coaches clog the streets. By encouraging visitors to stay longer and experience the city in a different way, we can reduce visitor numbers but boost their value, and in the proecss leave them with a better impression of their stay.

One way to do this is to provide a link to local people and the opportunity to experience life in Oxford from a resident’s point of view. Companies such as i-likelocal already do this across Asia and Africa, why can’t we make these local connections in Oxford too and increase visitors’ understanding of the city’s history, culture and communities in the process?

How about homestays with local potters, artists or weavers? Cookery courses that inlcude visits to local markets and producers? Bike tours to surrounding villages or Green Belt walking tours with local naturalists?

Diversifying tours

We must also consider how Oxford residents want to be seen and heard. Diversifying our tour offerings could give a voice and an income to the marginalised, help inform visitors about local issues, and encourage deeper connections with the communities they visit.

In London and Manchester, Unseen Tours and Invisible Cities train those who have experienced homelessness as guides. In Italy, Viaggi Solidali offers guided tours by trained immigrants, while in Morocco PikalaBikes trains unemployed young people as professional bike tour guides and mechanics.

Two large lanterns above a doorway inscribed with the words: Speak Friend and Enter
Two large lanterns above a doorway inscribed with the words: Speak Friend and Enter
The Story Museum, Oxford ©Etain O’Carroll

Prioritising people over cars

Just imagine arriving into Oxford by train on a warm summer’s evening, walking along a tree-lined, pedestrianised Hythe Bridge Street to a restored Worcester Street canal basin surrounded by cafes and restaurants.

If we focus on human experience rather than vehicular access, this is an achievable goal. A switch in priorities would make Oxford a better place for all as our air quality, health, and the prosperity of our small businesses improved*.

Ljubljana’s city centre has been car free for more than 10 years, Oslo’s Vision Zero has seen cars banned from the central streets, while Pontevedra, a small Spanish city, has become one of the most accessible and improved European cities thanks to its innovative car-free core.

A wooden library door with stone head carving and Latin inscription
A wooden library door with stone head carving and Latin inscription
The Bodleian Library, Oxford ©Etain O’Carroll

Leveraging smart tech

Another way to build a better future for tourism in Oxford is to innovate and build on new technologies being implemented elsewhere. Smart tech using findings from a pilot project in Tasmania is already being used in London Florence, Skane and Hokkaido to manage tourist numbers and divert crowds. Build on this and we can improve visitors’ overall experience and spread the economic benefits of tourism to more areas. Better still, Oxford could aim to become European Capital of Smart Tourism, a scheme which rewards cities for excellence in accessibility, sustainability, digitalisation, and cultural heritage and creativity.

Rewarding responsible business

To achieve a system of regenrative travel in Oxford we need to ingrain sustainability at every level and encourage and reward those who take their environmental impact seriously.

The hospitality and transport sectors need to start going well beyond the basics to address food provenance, energy supply and consumption, diversifying their workforce, offering fair pay, and ensuring local materials are used in new developments.

Guidelines for such a system are currently being collated into three Climate Action Blueprints — for Tour Operators, Accommodation Providers and Destinations — by Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. We could also encourage the operation of a fairer short lets system through initiatives such as FairBnB, a platform for short-term rentals, diverting 50% of their platform fee to fund local social projects.

Christ Church, Oxford ©Etain O’Carroll

Recognising sustainability as an economic lure

Businesses are suffering unprecendented losses right now, so it’s more important than ever to get the message across that sustainability makes economic sense. Research by G Adventures revealed that 97% of respondents would be more likely to book travel and experiences with companies that support environmental and social initiatives, while 31% would be willing to pay more for those experiences.

Many steps towards sustainability save money, yet businesses don’t always know this. We need a system to help and support businesses to make the necessary changes, while celebrating and promoting those companies that make a commitment to the environment a priority.

Together, we can work towards making Oxford a certified Green Destination, a badge that would give concerned consumers confidence and drive the right kind of growth.

Red brick house with white door and bicycle leaning against the window
Red brick house with white door and bicycle leaning against the window
An Oxford backstreet ©Etain O’Carroll

Improving consumer awareness

Finally, we need visitors to change their behaviour by establishing new norms across the industry. Marketing messages need to change in order to distribute visitors more evenly, promote cultural exchanges, champion local food, and encourage active and off-season travel.

A network of sustainable businesses working together to demonstrate the benefits of working in a regenerative fashion could go a long way to improving the tourism landscape in Oxford.

We have an opportunity right now to turn this crisis into positive change for the future, but local people and envionmentalists must be part of the decision-making process alongside councils, business owners and destination managers. It’s time to rethink how we do things and lead by example.

  • TfL has shown that improved walking and cycling infrastructure can increase retail spend by up to 30% for local businesses.

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