The challenges for Rye’s visitor economy

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Friday, March 22 is the last day of tourism week. Rye Chamber pitched a story to the BBC about the challenges faced by our tourism industry which you may have seen on Tuesday’s South East News. While it’s always helpful to have a wider platform and the opportunity to express our views as a town, two minutes of airtime inevitably means a nuanced and multi-layered issue doesn’t have the attention it needs. As the chamber, we felt that our members deserved the opportunity to have their concerns expressed in a little more detail.

First, it goes without saying that every town here in 1066 Country that relies on the visitor economy will be facing the same challenges we do here in Rye.

The increased cost of doing business and of living challenges us two ways. Rising costs mean business have had to raise prices in order keep going, but we know from the latest Tourism Southeast data that 44% of those surveyed will be looking for special offers and discounts when they book their holidays in the region this year because they too are challenged by the cost of living. Small businesses will struggle to offer discounts or special offers in the face of rising costs, yet they need the trade. So that’s a double-edged sword and a very difficult line to navigate.

VAT is a continuing issue. The hospitality industry in the UK has been lobbying for it to be reduced to 10% for our sector which would be an enormous buffer, but at the budget two weeks ago all we saw was a rise in threshold which was seven years overdue and will make little difference. It’s a punishing tax for a small business as there is no taper.

As with other tourist towns, Rye has mixed feelings about the scrapping of the furnished holiday letting tax regime. We recognise we need much more affordable housing; we also know that 34% of people coming to the south east this year will be looking for a self-catering break – and they need somewhere to stay if we’re going to maintain our tourism economy. That said, there absolutely needs to be a better balance in our town when it comes to Airbnbs – the playing field needs to be levelled when it comes to the operational requirements that self-catering businesses and holiday letting businesses face compared to private individuals with second properties that they casually let for additional income.

Recruitment isn’t just an issue for the town’s hospitality businesses, it is a national crisis. There is a skills gap that needs addressing and we need better links with our further education colleges to ensure that the right candidates can progress easily into the workplace. One business in Rye that has made huge strides in forcing the pace of change is the Mermaid Inn. Martin Blincow has worked closely with colleges in Hasting and Bexhill to create a pathway enabling students wanting careers in hospitality to benefit from workplacements at the hotel. The long term prospect being that they will be being first in line for employment opportunities at the end of their education period. The Mermaid has done the leg work, and it’s a system that could now be easily replicated across the town for other hotels and restaurants; smaller businesses could work together to share job placements making this even more accessible for both students and potential employers. With little prospect of change from government, local businesses are faced with no option but to get savvy and create their own opportunities. It’s hard work, but it pays off.

We’re a resilient business community because we’ve had to be. We survived Brexit, Covid and we’re treading water while the cost-of-living crisis continues, so creative thinking, flexibility and diversification are the watchwords for almost all our small businesses.

Rye Heritage Centre should be the start point for any visitor to Rye. The town model is a great way to learn about the town before setting off to explore as a tourist. The challenge is the unpredictability of footfall. A rainy day might mean plenty of people drop by, a sunny day might mean everyone heads for the beach instead. That makes predicting income for this charity is very challenging and therefore its ability to safeguard its future – it’s an asset we don’t want to lose. Group bookings from overseas students were always the backbone of the income for the heritage centre, Brexit and Covid put paid to that, and Simon Parsons, manager at the centre feels we’re unlikely to see a return to pre-2019 numbers. The change in visitor visa requirements this year will likely impact on this further making student visits to the UK that little bit more unachievable.

While we will wait and see how a summer without Pontins affects trade in Rye, it will undoubtedly affect the local businesses in Camber. The cafes and restaurants will lose footfall. Anthony Skinner at Camber Kitesurfing acknowledges that the e-bike side of his business is likely to be impacted by the drop in footfall that the closure of Pontins will result in. But overall residents of Camber and Rye want to know what will become of the site. There is no further news but plenty of speculation. Camber has already been punished by a 2023 season that was compromised by the excessive parking charges that were introduced. Those have since been lifted but there was little news about this council u-turn and many feel that visitors continue to avoid Camber because they incorrectly think that the charges are still in place.

Cuts from Rother District Council this year mean Rye will only have two sets of public conveniences open rather than the usual four. That isn’t a good look for a town that wants to be accessible for all our tourists. And let’s not get started on the state of our roads and the challenges of climate change which will only increase problems going forward because ESCC is strapped for cash and can’t keep up with the repairs.

When it’s all down on paper, it all gives a pretty gloomy picture for the tourism sector, but I think as a business community we remain positive simply because we must be. However you look at it, in the current climate the challenges we face as a town that needs its visitor economy to thrive are considerable. The phrase thinking outside the box may be a hackneyed one but in our case it’s true – greater collaboration and creative thinking are the most powerful tools we have at a time when support from central or local government is limited.

Image Credits: @swallowtailhill @rebeccadouglasphotography .

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2 COMMENTS

  1. As always Sarah, a balanced view of the challenges our region and others are facing. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several of our tourism businesses during the English Tourism Week and can echo the strong message about the gap left by the lack of overseas student visitors.
    One of them was Rye Heritage Centre and Simon Parsons reiterated his comments about their concerns. This centre is a jewel run by Simon and around 20 volunteers. They are doing an excellent job, with little funds, to maintain its presence. We discussed the importance of collaboration and mutual promotion by the Rye tourism/hospitality sector. I believe the Rye Chamber is best placed to do that.
    I must thank Bodiam Castle, Tillingham Wines, Great Dixter House and Rye Heritage Centre for hosting my visits (along with Cllr Vicki Cook, RDC Chairman). The time and effort put into the tours was much appreciated.

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