Newport council drops post-NATO bombshell

Newport is finally on the world map
Newport is finally on the world map

Why on earth did I imagine it could last?

Yesterday, as the NATO summit ended, the whole of Newport was on a high having extended a warm Welsh welcome to 22 world leaders, the international media, 9,500 courteous and very friendly police officers and quite a few peace protesters.

Hampshire police officers were so overwhelmed by the friendliness of we Newportonians that they left a handwritten note saying, ‘We will not miss standing on the roundabout for twelve hours but will miss the people in the community who showed friendship and kindness during our stay’. It was a wonderful gesture and judging from the number of likes on Facebook when a photograph of the note was posted (nearly 13,000 last time I checked, with 2,236 shares), everyone here was very happy with the way the police kept us informed and interacted with us.

The Thank You note from Hampshire Police
The Thank You note from Hampshire Police

Under the headline, ‘Nato summit: Newport looks forward to future benefit from global exposure‘, the Guardian newspaper writes that Newport council is predicting ‘a boom time for the city’ and quotes council leader Bob Bright saying the Nato summit had elevated the city to another level. Councillor Bright adds that Newport ‘is now truly on the global stage, ranking among other notable cities’.

After years of hiding under a bushel (interpret that as living in Cardiff’s shadow), Newport finally has something to shout about and believe me, we’re all shouting very loudly at the moment. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, this rekindled pride in our city really is a wonderful thing to behold.

Why then, has Newport council chosen this precise weekend to inform staff of its proposals to close Caerleon Tourist Information Centre (TIC) for six months of the year (October to March inclusive) and cut the opening hours to just 20 a week over four days during summer months?

The magnificent Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon
The magnificent Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon

Perhaps I should emphasize that this is Newport’s ONLY TIC – the city centre one that many websites still refer to – the one that is signposted on major roads around the city centre – closed a few years ago. Well, that’s not strictly true, because the actual space on the ground floor of Newport Museum and Art Gallery still has leaflets on display – and a small selection of gifts for sale – however, providing tourists with information about the city is no longer the venue’s raison d’être. If people actually want to know specific information about Newport’s attractions, travel, local events or hotel accommodation, they are asked to ring or visit Caerleon TIC… which, if you happen to be visiting on Monday to Wednesday or between October and March in the future, looks unlikely to be open.

Shortened and seasonal opening hours also means the job is more likely to appeal to those looking for casual work than committed ambassadors for Newport; presumably, new staff will be taken on every spring so they simply won’t be able to accumulate and impart the level of detailed knowledge which so enhances people’s holidays.

The Waterloo Hotel and Newport Transporter Bridge
The Waterloo Hotel and Newport Transporter Bridge

Let’s face it, if Caerleon TIC is closed more often than it’s open (and that’s what the council is proposing), people are going to stop calling in at all – or maybe that’s the plan. No visitors to Newport, no need to provide a Tourist Information Centre.

Caerleon’s two employees frequently have British and overseas visitors telling them how impressed (and amazed) they are by Caerleon’s Roman Ruins (brilliantly publicised by the independent Caerleon.net). They’ve heard plenty about Bath, Chester and York yet until they arrived, they had no inkling that Caerleon’s amphitheatre, baths and barracks are quite so spectacular.

Newport also has one of the only working transporter bridges in the world but it’s been opened and closed so many times, even we locals lose track of whether we can cross on it or not.

One of the stunning views from Newport's ridgeway
One of the stunning views from Newport’s ridgeway

Seventeenth-century Tredegar House has been described as one of the most ‘outstanding houses of the Restoration period in the whole of Britain’ and stands in 90 acres of gorgeous parkland. It’s been owned by Newport council since 1974 but at the end of 2011, the council ‘leased’ it to the National Trust for 50 years in the hope the latter could increase visitor numbers from 25,000 a year to 120,000. By September 2013, the plan seemed to be working with six-month figures reaching 42,000, however for the time being, rather than bringing in any income, this stunning red-brick house costs Newport Council a six-figure amount every year.

Then there’s the excellent Newport Wetlands (run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), Fourteen Locks Centre (Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canal Trust) and the Newport Ship (which would have ended up buried under the orchestra pit of the Riverfront Theatre had protesters not set up a 24-hour guard to halt building work). And don’t get me started on the needless demolition of the Chartist mural!

Fourteen Locks on the Monmouthshire arm of the canal
Fourteen Locks on the Monmouthshire arm of the canal

We have beautiful scenery on our doorstep – the breathtaking Ridgeway ‘double view’ for starters – and two wonderful undulating Victorian parks – Beechwood and Belle Vue. We have a Norman castle, two art deco buildings, an award-winning footbridge and plenty of cycle paths. We also have a fabulous indoor market and the wonderfully quirky Ffrwrwm Arts Centre.

Yet despite everything Newport has to offer, tourism always second place to the holy grail of retail development. The ability of department store Debenhams to transform Newport’s fortunes is never questioned, yet no-one (at the council at least) ever considers that a committed crusade to attract tourists might bring even greater benefits.

 

The old Odeon cinema - one of Newport's art deco buildings
The old Odeon cinema – one of Newport’s art deco buildings

Sometimes (often) it’s impossible not to despair. In 2011, the council’s tourism department published a leaflet which was determined to tell people about all the great places outside the city.

Here’s the first persuasive paragraph (for a moment imagine you’re a tourist who’s considering staying in Newport and spending money in Newport):

‘Newport is surrounded by beautiful landscapes, including the Forest of Dean, the UK’s largest oak forest, the Wye Valley, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural beauty and the undulating Vale of Usk, famous for its salmon fishing. For breathtaking walks, or a leisurely drive, the Brecon Beacons National Park is less than an hour’s drive away. Cyclists are also catered for with superb mountain biking on offer at nearby Cwmcarn.’

Incredible as it seems, tourism officers thought the best way to attract visitors to Newport was to send them elsewhere. If that’s the best they can do, it’s not surprising visitors are unaware of the incredible Roman ruins until they actually get here (that’s if they haven’t passed through en route to all those other places that Newport is promoting).

The subliminal message seems to be to get out of Newport as fast as possible because there’s nothing here. Which is wrong!

By paragraph two of the leaflet, its author finally remembers it’s Newport he/she is promoting, yet do we read about Tredegar House, Fourteen Locks or the iconic Transporter Bridge?

No, it’s straight to the city’s professional sporting facilities: the Velodrome, Rodney Parade rugby grounds and the world-class golf course at the Celtic Manor Resort. While I realise that these top notch sporting facilities may be the reason for some visits to Newport, I really don’t think the average overseas tourist is likely to hire a top-notch bike so they can pedal around the Velodrome. While Newport may attract many rugby fans, they generally arrive to watch a specific match, not because they’ve done a bit of casual reading and learned that Newport has a ‘first-class rugby union’ (does that even make sense?).

Anyway, sporting facilities are not really tourist attractions, with maybe the exception of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium which is an iconic building in itself.

Breathtaking scenery within Newport's borders
Breathtaking scenery within Newport’s borders

Whatever the reason (maybe all Newport’s tourism officers live in Cardiff?), this city has never been the greatest at promoting itself.

Then this week, the world turned on its head. The eyes of the world were focussed on Newport, Wales and, as a result, the place has been ablaze with excitement and activity. For a few days, Newport wasn’t Cardiff’s humble neighbour but a city that was quite splendid in its own right, a place where visitors were welcomed with enthusiasm and bonhomie. A place all those police officers from Hampshire were sorry to leave.

You would think that someone at Newport council would scratch their head and say, ‘Hey, this little city of ours isn’t such a bad place after all, let’s capture the zeitgeist and market the place like crazy!’

But no. Just one day after the NATO summit ends, the only two individuals who work face-to-face with visitors to the city are told their hours are likely to be reduced to just ten a week for six months of the year.

You couldn’t make it up!

Sorry for the moan…

UPDATE As we suspected would happen, the Caerleon TIC never reopened its doors. Newport – Wales’ third largest city – now has no tourist information centre. 

 

 

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