Tourist Centre visits slump in St Albans

Scaffolding around the Old Town Hall.

Scaffolding around the Old Town Hall. - Credit: Archant

St Albans is failing to tap into Hertfordshire’s burgeoning tourism industry, with the number of visits to the city’s hidden information centre plunging by 79 per cent, council figures have revealed.

Scaffolding around the Old Town Hall.

Scaffolding around the Old Town Hall. - Credit: Archant

While tourism is worth more than £2.1 billion to the county’s economy, visits to St Albans’ Tourist Information Centre (TIC) dropped from 7,583 to 1,618 year on year, according to a recent district council report.

St Albans and District Chamber of Commerce president David Clarke said: “If St Albans is going to become a destination, that is pathetic for a city of our heritage.”

As previously reported by the Herts Advertiser, tourists have been left confused when visiting the city, as they cannot find the local information centre, which was previously operating in the landmark Town Hall. A pared down service is now being offered at the Alban Arena, in the Civic Centre.

During summer, confused visitors were wandering into the Clock Tower to ask volunteers for help.

The Tourist Information Centre in the Old Town Hall has been closed

The Tourist Information Centre in the Old Town Hall has been closed - Credit: Archant

In August, local resident Andrew Johnstone criticised the council for “squeezing our tourist office into a hitherto obscure corner of the Alban Arena”.

He warned: “The meagre facility provided is likely to damage the local tourist industry and be a source of disappointment to those visiting the city, and expecting to find the level of assistance available elsewhere.”

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However, the council’s recent report said that visitor numbers had been impacted ‘as anticipated’ during a temporary change in location of the service to the Alban Arena, during the multi-million-pound redevelopment of the former Town Hall into a new museum and art gallery.

But David Clarke said the service being offered to tourists “needs to be something better. Clearly, it needs better signposting if there has been a drop in numbers. Our city is massively tied up with the visitor economy.”

He said the council should have considered the streets tourists were most likely to use to enter St Albans before relocating the information service, adding, “I wasn’t aware the centre had been hidden away. It is disappointing.”

Eric Roberts of St Albans Civic Society said while he was not surprised at the statistics, he found them ‘disturbing’ at a time when local shops were ‘trying so hard’ to boost footfall.

Cllr Beric Read, the district council’s portfolio holder for localism, said the service offered at the Alban Arena was different to that given at the Town Hall.

Prior to its closure, visitor numbers for the TIC were about 90,000 annually. This figure had been forecasted to drop to 16,500 this year.

In 2015/16 26,500 visitors asked about buying tickets for transport and to attend events. Now, staff at the relocated centre are directing customers to other outlets, or to access ticket sales online.

A further 10 per cent – 9,000 – used internet access, faxing and printing services. But due to reduced space at the Alban Arena, the TIC can no longer provide those.

Interestingly, visits to the council’s online visitors’ website fell from 42,880 in October 2015 to 31,370 in October 2016, a 27 per cent reduction.

The council has reported that it appeared to be a result of the public switching to using sites like Google, TripAdvisor and Airbnb to find events, restaurants and accommodation.

It added: “The Visit Herts website has probably also had an effect. In addition, the St Albans and Harpenden Food and Drink Festival ran for a shorter period this year compared to last year, which may have had an impact on website hits.”

Independent research commissioned recently by Visit Herts, meanwhile, has revealed an impressive picture of tourism across the county, with more than 25 million visitors making day trips and overnight stays.

However, it is neighbouring Dacorum benefiting the most, as the borough saw the highest volume of domestic overnight and longer domestic breaks in this county during 2015.

Visit Herts, which began operating as an official destination management organisation for the county in autumn 2015, said that tourism was worth more than £2.1 billion to the local economy.