Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

As the parties battle it out, the frustrated electorate views unaffordable offers – whether from retailers or politicians – with increasing scepticism. While there is a longing to get back to some form of normality, the real Black Friday looms for someone on the 13th December.

Despite alarm at the prospect of Brexit and threats of increased taxation, with Christmas approaching, ‘ordinary’ people are getting ready to celebrate – and the hospitality industry is gearing up for a busy few weeks.

The UK Tourism industry is currently worth £127 billion to the economy, employing 2.6 million people. Visit Britain’s published aim, working in partnership across the public and private sectors, is to attract 40 million international visitors a year, spending £31.5 billion, by 2020. According to figures for 2017/18, it has almost achieved that target, delivering 39.2 million visitors, with a £31.5 billion spend.

However, the domestic market is also expanding, with England accounting for more than 80 per cent of total visitor spend in 2017/18, reaching £91 billion.

East Anglia contributes £10 billion.

“Tourism doesn’t just happen. No single business, organisation, or region can go it alone; we need to work together for the greater good… and remind ourselves that we are competing with other regions, in the UK and abroad, not with each other,” says Chris Scargill, tourism, leisure and hospitality partner at MHA Larking Gowen, which recently launched its sixth industry survey at a special conference.

The largest independent annual survey of its kind in East Anglia, covering the 2019 season, data is collected from businesses across Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex, analysing trends, outcomes, and the impact of weather extremes, ranging from the Beast from the East in February/March, torrential downpours over Easter, and the early summer heatwave.

Published weeks before the General Election was called, Chris Scargill’s comments carry an almost psychic element, given the general lack of support for business across all the political manifestos – and certainly no specific mention of the importance of tourism to our national and regional economies:

“I fear there is a belief that the sector is an easy route to raising tax revenues….including a bed tax…. It is potentially unreasonable to expect to see a fall in VAT here, but financial computations show it would be a jobs and revenue generator, as well as providing cheaper restaurant and accommodation bills for us all. Most businesses feel that government, locally and nationally, do not do enough for the sector.”

Already struggling to attract and retain its workforce, which is at the heart of successful tourism businesses, fears over Brexit indicate further challenges, with much of the sector relying on foreign staff; the British Hospitality Association notes that EU workers represent 75 per cent of waiters and waitresses, 25 per cent of chefs, and 37 per cent of housekeeping staff.

According to Airbnb, most five-star excellent reviews included an employee’s name, underpinning the importance of soft skills. It’s the people who make the difference, and tourism employs around 160,000 across Norfolk and Suffolk, with a further 11,000 needed by 2024. There is an estimated 60,000 shortfall of workers nationally, rising to around one million by 2029.

In a bid to address the problem, key stakeholders in East Anglia, including the New Anglia Enterprise Partnership and its Skills Board have developed a tourism skills plan, “helping to grow and sustain a year-round visitor economy and improve productivity through apprenticeships and training, to meet growing demand.” The group is looking to identify local and national funding opportunities, as well as to raise awareness of the huge potential and inspire young people to have full-time careers.

Business rates are another issue, and threats of penalising second home owners – many of whom let their properties during the holiday season – contribute to higher charges to customers, potentially affecting revenue, and, by default, local hospitality and retail businesses.

Rebranding from Visit East Anglia to Visit East of England at the beginning of 2019 has had a two-fold effect, according to executive director, Pete Waters: first, falling in line with other regional organisations (Visit South West, Visit North West etc.) and, second, recognising that ‘East Anglia’ meant nothing to potential visitors. “We are now working to put ourselves on the UK map. Although a lesser known destination, we have two of the best connected international airports, at Norwich and Stansted, as well as twice-daily ferries between the Hook of Holland and Harwich.” Good road and rail infrastructure, long neglected, is crucial to long-term tourism expansion.

Businesses and DMOs (Destination Management Organisations) are being encouraged to work more closely together, “to attract visitors of all demographics, turning day trippers into stay visitors, building on current markets and developing new ones.” Ambitions include capitalising on opportunities in North America, given long standing connections with US Forces, and the Continent.

A new website promotes the area’s unique history: fine medieval and Tudor architecture, range of music and food festivals, arts, culture, with some fine museums and theatres, and bird and maritime reserves. The coastline attracts sailors from across the globe, spending time in the various marinas to explore (although more could be done to welcome sailors, providing information on nearby attractions, supermarkets – to stock up on necessities – and public transport).

Thriving town centres are a key visitor attraction and Bury St Edmunds’ annual four-day Christmas Fayre is one of the biggest in the country, with 300 stalls, attracting thousands of people from the local and wider community. A real bonus for all the hospitality and retail businesses, which already enjoy consistently high footfall throughout the year.

Ed Sheeran’s recent visit to Ipswich, with four days of concerts in Chantry Park, was a huge success, boosting the local hospitality sector, across hotels, restaurants, and pubs.

Unfortunately, the benefits didn’t extend to the town centre. Supposed to be Suffolk’s ‘capital’, Ipswich recently reported that 458 business premises are empty – 300 in the town centre itself, from pubs and clubs, to shops, offices, banks and even sports grounds. Whilst Ipswich Vision is focused on regeneration, the Labour-controlled borough council continues to use taxpayers’ money to ‘invest’ in out of town retail parks.

Hopefully, the General Election will remove the political uncertainty which inhibits investment, and clarify immigration policy to benefit the tourism sector.

As Chris Scargill concludes:

“Blast the myth that tourism just happens.”