I believe that the moment Mrs Thatcher took her Walk in the Wilderness, Tees Valley began to change forever.
Where she stood more than 20 years ago, there is now the Tees Barrage, a world-class water sports facility that will be a training facility for the 2012 Olympics. From urban decay, a new prospect arose.
Steadily, the image of Tees Valley has changed. The unprecedented investment that followed the Iron Lady’s visit continues to this day, in addition to a lot of hard work.
In those dark days of factory closures, any talk of making Teesside a visitor and holiday destination would have been laughable, but now, you only need look at the figures to see Tees Valley’s image has been transformed. More and more people are coming here; in fact, we get more visitors than Northumberland - 3.8m visitors a year here compared to 2.5m in Northumberland.
Overnight visitor numbers have risen by almost a third over five years, which is well above the national average. That means more money coming into the region. At the last count that was around £542m a year. That money helps support 11,000 jobs.
These are significant figures; tourism is vital to the area. You can understand the growth in popularity. Look at mima - Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. More than £15m has been invested in this amazing building. It has National Gallery status and some of the most exciting art outside London. Then there’s the RSPB reserve at Saltholme near Port Clarence, which opened in January.
This £7m project has seen 1,000 acres of formerindustrial land turned into a wonderful wildlife experience. I think the new Tees Valley is best exemplified by Hartlepool. Here was a town whose heavy industry had been devastated; a town which had lost its way in a sense.
Yet Hartlepool has now remodelled itself into an international tourist destination. Where a decaying area of dockside once was, there is now a brilliant Maritime Experience. With the wonderful HMS Trincomalee at its heart, you have an attraction to rival anything in Britain.
Hartlepool’s renaissance is also bringing the Tall Ships Races to the region. In August 2010 more than a million people will be there to see the spectacle of more than 100 tall ships putting in from all over the world. Hartlepool on the international map will be a great visitor opportunity, not just for Hartlepool but for the North East.
Events like the Tall Ships Races help to transform the image of Tees Valley in the minds of people all over Britain and abroad. visitTeesvalley, the five local authorities, plus the private sector with whom we are in partnership, have worked extremely hard and shaken off a lot of misconceptions. I think that’s been one of the exciting things about this job. We had a blank canvas on which to work. We’ve now forged our own identity as an events-led visitor destination. There is always something to do on Teesside. And that’s what people like about Tees Valley, It’s happening … as we say here. It has been extremely challenging though. Tourism simply wasn’t part of the DNA. It was done on an ad hoc basis bit by bit.
Some people did it extremely well, but there was no overarching strategy. I think that’s what visitTeesvalley and the local authorities have done; we’ve pulled it all together. And I think we’ve managed to ingrain the tourism mentality here.
When I worked in the South East of England, with partners such as EuroTunnel and the ferry operators, tourism was second nature. We are learning, and learning fast. We’ve had to. After all, with Northumberland and the Lake District right next door, we’ve had to be on our game. But that is a challenge I really relish.
As a result, we’ve had huge success with our events. Middlesbrough hosted the Last Night of the Proms as part of Proms in the Park.
Thousands flocked to the town’s Centre Square for an unforgettable night. We also have Stockton’s International Riverside Festival, which is Europe’s largest free open-air festival. Last year it drew a quarter of a million visitors to the region.
Not everything has to be on that scale. An event can be anything from a weekend of mountain biking or white water rafting to having a meal in a new restaurant. It can be as varied as that.
We just have to ensure that those facilities are available and the public know about them. That’s imperative now that we’re in a recession. In fact, despite the doom and gloom, life does go on. And yes, people will still go on holiday. It looks like more and more of us are thinking of holidaying in the UK. The weak pound presents an additional opportunity for us. We are seeing a rise in the number of people coming to the North East from Scandinavia now. Those in tourism talk about the ‘Staycation’ – a US import, but a growing phenomenon, even so. People may have less money to spend so they’re staying at home and planning trips away.
Tees Valley is a perfect spot geographically for this, and we’re already capitalising on it. In these difficult times, we have found working together pays dividends. We’ve created a series of forums enabling those within specific tourism sectors to meet regularly and share information, expertise and advice. These forums are working, and working well. It shows, I think, what can be achieved now when we put our heads together for the greater good of Tees Valley.