Flagship tourism project EXPERIENCE (Experiential Tourism to Extend the Visitor Season) has been rolling out off-season tourism initiatives, as the wider tourism industry shakes off Covid-19 pandemic losses.
The project, which is funded by the Interreg France (Channel) England programme and led by Norfolk County Council, aims to transform the tourism sector in the Channel area by developing experiential tourism, to help extend the tourism season and bring in new revenue and jobs.
EXPERIENCE project launched in July 2019 but was interrupted by the pandemic in March 2020 when tourism and travel ground to halt.
Over the course of 2020 the project has adapted its offering focusing on local tourism experiences and, as the provisions allow, has been building up to draw visitors from other counties and regions. It is hoped that as part of its next phase, the project will draw visitors across the Channel, as travel restrictions ease further.
Experiential tourism is an increasingly popular trend among travellers, and its potential is yet to be fully exploited in the region. In contrast to the mainstream approach within the industry – the so-called destination tourism, based on mass-market locations during peak season – experiential tourism relies on memorable, stimulating visitor experiences showcasing regional uniqueness, not only during summer.
EXPERIENCE is already stimulating demand for ‘out of season’ tourism by developing new cultural and outdoor experiences, advertising campaigns, and infrastructure.
In October 2021, EXPERIENCE project partners Visit Kent and Kent AONB received international acclaim after Kent was named in Lonely Planet’s top 10 list of global cities to visit. In acknowledging the regions entry, Lonely Planet highlighted Kent’s Heritage Coastline, part of Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Kent’s involvement in both EXPERIENCE and another Interreg FCE funded project, UNESCO Sites Across the Channel Area, which aims to boost sustainable development and inclusion through seeking UNESCO designation.
EXPERIENCE is the largest Interreg France (Channel) England project in the field of tourism, with a total budget of €23.3 million. By the end of the project in June 2023, it is expected to bring more than 20 million additional visitors to the Channel region and generate €1 billion of extra spending.
The project brings together 14 partners operating in six pilot regions (Norfolk, Kent, Cornwall, Pas-de-Calais, Compiègne and Brittany), which not only cover a large part of the Channel area, but also ensures a diverse and inclusive offer of experiences, tackling multiple challenges at once, from sustainability to accessibility.
The project has already developed a number of new tourism products, experiences and training initiatives. This is despite the tourism industry recording a 1.1 billion decline in international arrivals worldwide and a 60% loss in revenue in Europe for the year 2020.
The Kent Downs Experience Maker Programme provides free expert support to farmers, land owners, land managers and rural tourism businesses aiming to build experiences based on landscape, nature, local produce but also rural life and culture. Kent Downs AONB is launching the second edition of its programme with applications closing on 15 November.
The project has also helped Norfolk & Norwich Festival, which usually takes place in Spring, organise new events for Autumn 2021. Rider Spoke, a critically acclaimed performance mixing art, theatre and location-based technologies, offers the audience an immersive cycling experience over several weekends, with events still to take place in November 2021.
On the other side of the Channel, project partner Côtes d’Armor Destination is delivering a large media campaign in France. A short video promoting autumn and winter tourism in Côtes d’Armor county, playfully called “Côtes d’Armor Autumn-Winter Collection 2021-2022” is currently being advertised on catch-up platforms of major TV channels in France:In Baie de Morlaix the project team have delivered unique workshops on artisanal techniques to make butter: ‘avec du beurre, tout est meilleur!’ (With butter, everything is okay!) to produce the delicious Brittany butter. In October members of the public were invited to visit a design studio, ‘La Voilerie Jeandot’ which upcycles sails for Brittany’s boat skippers and produces exquisite upcycled bags and decorative objects.
In addition to these new offers, the project is set to leave a lasting mark on the Channel region through investment in infrastructure. For example, the recent launch of the West Kernow Way, a picturesque 150-mile cycling route created in partnership with Cycling UK, which crosses the Cornish landscape and heritage sites of the Tin Coast. Other new cycling routes in Kent and Norfolk are expected in 2022.
Norfolk will also be home to a new outdoor public art trail spanning 250 miles of the county, inspiring visitors to explore the area during the low season.
Beyond constructions linked to culture, landscapes and heritage, EXPERIENCE will improve the accessibility of the Channel area, ensuring that people with disabilities can enjoy those same experiences. Kent County Council has started installing two Changing Places toilets in the Kent Downs AONB.
Changing Places toilets are key for people with profound physical disabilities to enjoy day-to-day outside activities, as standard accessible toilets do not meet all their needs. These facilities provide the extra equipment (such as hoists and changing benches) and space needed for safe and comfortable use. In addition to this, Kent County Council will adapt several routes and trails to improve access for wheelchairs and disability vehicles.
The Norfolk project team contributed to the sell-out Festival of Fire on the Water in Great Yarmouth this autumn and will be supporting the Love Light Festival in Norwich next year. The project will also be launching the City of Stories, with themed book benches, as part of a dementia friendly trail. There are also plans for a dark skies observatory experience in partnership with the Royal Astronomical Society and tourism SMEs.
Further ahead, they are set to launch a learning platform in December 2022, which will provide a library of resources and online training materials for those working in the tourism and culture sector to develop their own ‘out of season’ initiatives.
The next few months will be crucial for the projects’ delivery and success, as it further tests its experiential tourism offer over the winter season and adapts to the ‘new normal’.