For the past 40 years, social tourism has struggled for recognition in the UK. What now?

While on a family break earlier this year, my wife, daughter and I were strolling along a Majorcan beach, its thin strip of white sand framed by pine trees, and we delighted in soaking up the utter idyll of it all.  It reminded me of how lucky we are to be able to enjoy the benefits of a break away from home.

Of course, working at the Family Holiday Association makes you especially aware of the importance of holidays.

But too many families – 2.2 million at the last count –  don’t have the wherewithal to experience even a simple few days away from home far less a holiday on a Mediterranean island. Or, put another way, every year some 5 million children are denied the opportunity to walk on a beach and feel the sand between their toes.

© Copyright Michael Powell. 17 Cow Lane, Tealby, Lincs. LN8 3YB. 01673 838040.

The implications of this for the families and children concerned and wider society have rarely registered on anyone’s policy agenda.  And yet considerable research confirms that time away from the stresses and strains of everyday life can help to build happier, stronger families. The charity has always understood that its work in helping thousands of families each year, could never, on its own, be enough to meet the need.

Holidays: the social need.

It was almost exactly 40 years ago, that a report, jointly commissioned by the English Tourist Board and the Trades Union Congress, raised the need for this lack of access to be taken seriously.  The report stated that “social tourism”, offering socially disadvantaged people the possibility of taking holidays and enjoying recreational activities at low cost, was one way of addressing this inequality.

“In view of the essential role of holidays, social tourism should be recognised as an important part of a general social responsibility to all of the disadvantaged groups which have been considered in this report.”

The report was promptly forgotten about.

Giving Britain a Break

It was not until a 2011 All Party Parliamentary Group report, “Giving Britain a Break” did social tourism begin to gain any real traction in Britain.

The report drew on evidence from mainland Europe where social tourism is a well-established element of most countries’ social welfare programmes.  MPs interviewed academic researchers and “coal-face” practitioners such as social workers, teachers and charity workers.  The cross-party group of MPs were convinced of the need for action but they were only too aware that the hope of access to the public purse for a publicly funded social tourism programme was unlikely at a time of austerity.  As result, the report’s recommendations were centred around initiating further mainstream debate and the need for actions to demonstrate social tourism’s potential in the short term.

1976and2011Two Reports
Two reports, 35 years apart.

In the years following the All Party Parliamentary Group report, our work has gained support from national tourist boards, local Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) and large corporate partners, and this has resulted in several social tourism pilot programmes being launched.

Pilot programmes

Visit Kent, a highly entrepreneurial DMO, has successfully incorporated a social tourism programme into its annual “Big Weekend” event.  Visit York has used its YorkPass to allow struggling local families to enjoy their home city at no cost.  The National Trust, Great Western Railway, National Express, the Youth Hostel Association and London Zoo are only some of the organisations in England and Wales that have committed to supporting low-income families with free access and travel.

In Scotland, VisitScotland built a social tourism element into its 2016 multi-million pound “ScotSpirit” global marketing campaign.  Over 30 VisitScotland partners participated including MacDonald Hotels, Hilton Hotels, ScotRail, Caledonian MacBrayne, Edinburgh Zoo and Blair Drummond Safari Park. The Family Holiday Association curated the programme, aggregating and distributing the breaks through its referring network of professionals who work directly with families. Hundreds of Scottish families were supported in 2016 and an enlarged programme continues this year under the ScotSpirit brand.

The VisitScotland campaign has also attracted considerable political attention with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, taking an interest and Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for tourism, asking her civil servants to draw-up a report on the potential of social tourism to improve not only people’s well-being but also the domestic tourism economy.

Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop ,“The Scottish Government recognises the need for everyone to have a holiday and is working hard to improve access to breaks for those in difficult life circumstances.”

Indeed, the Cabinet Secretary spoke at the Tourism Society symposium in Edinburgh earlier this summer where she said, “The Scottish Government recognises the need for everyone to have a holiday and is working hard to improve access to breaks for those in difficult life circumstances. We are very pleased to be able to support the work VisitScotland is doing with the Family Holiday Association to develop those opportunities”.

A short video clip of the Cabinet Secretary’s speech is available here


Catalyst for change

The Family Holiday Association has been the catalyst for all of these initiatives.  Our work on building a wide network of contacts in Europe, with British universities, like-minded charities and organisations; our conversations with politicians; our seminars, conferences and roundtables have all helped give the charity a level of credibility that, in turn, gave partners confidence in working with us.  Our initial contact with VisitScotland was in 2009 – six years later and after lots of interaction we are their logical choice of partner for the ScotSpirit campaign.

While social tourism is still hardly well know, and even less understood, in the UK, it is clear that more and more people can see the potential it has to deliver real and significant benefits for people’s well-being, to reduce social exclusion and, by increasing participation, have a positive impact on the tourism economy.

Following a Family Holiday Association-supported break, eighty percent of families experience improved children’s school attendance. Nottingham University found that adults’ job seeking activity significantly increase following their supported short holiday. And we know from Europe that well-established government-backed social tourism programmes inject billions of Euros into their domestic tourism economies while, at the same time, providing access to affordable breaks for millions of European citizens.

What next?

So, how do we increase the thousands of struggling British families being helped to the tens of thousands or more?

An early screenshot from the new system.

Again, the Family Holiday Association is leading from the front. Working with our partners, we have embarked on an exciting project to construct a web-based platform that will allow a simpler and more efficient method of aggregating and distributing donated and spare capacity to the families who need it most.

Initially, the new platform will be used to distribute breaks from within our own resources but, during 2018, we will be expanding the offer of its use to our current network of partners and then, hopefully, we will be able to share it even wider.

The charity believes the use of this new and ambitious facility will be yet another step towards unleashing the potential of social tourism to deliver the benefits of a simple break that most of us take for granted.

There are five million children depending on its success; because a little sunshine goes a long way.

John McDonald, Chief Executive, Family Holiday Association



A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Tourism Society magazine Summer/Autumn 2017





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