British Tourism Q&A: Travel Writer Donald Strachan

British tourism is a big topic in 2012. With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next month, the Olympics in July and August, and the Paralympics in August and September, the United Kingdom is under some serious scrutiny, in particular as a national brand and a tourist destination.

Here I ask Donald Strachan, travel journalist, guidebook writer and all around Twitter delight, some questions about the current state of tourism in the UK. (Be sure to check out my earlier Q&A on the state of tourism in Britain with Sally Shalam.)

Q: Donald Strachan, define your occupation.

A: I’m a travel journalist, an advice columnist for the Sunday Telegraph focusing on consumer travel technology, and a guidebook writer for Frommer’s specializing in England, Wales, and Italy. I’ve also authored content for iPhone apps to Florence and Turin, and am working on some new self-published eBooks.

Q: As a travel writer, how did you come to specialize on the UK?

A: About eight years ago I decided that I didn’t want to continue to fly, and I haven’t been on an airplane since. That choice has narrowed the field down a little, obviously. I also think that there’s so much within an hour’s journey of anyone’s home that they will never discover, even if they live to be 80. I think I made the right decision. I love the areas I know, and love having the time to explore them in more depth, without the lure of the next tropical island to distract me.

Q: How would you assess the state of tourism marketing in the UK – strengths, weaknesses?

A: To be honest, I pay very little attention to this. Marketing a destination is (necessarily, I guess) such a broad-brush activity, and yet what really interests people about a place is usually specific and fine-grained. I’ve always wanted to go to Buenos Aires, because I remember the tickertape raining down at the 1978 World Cup Final. It formed such a strong impression. How do you market to that?

The UK advertisements I have seen seem to stick to the clichés. There’s nothing wrong with a cliché, in itself; so many of our travel goals, all this bucket-list stuff, it’s basically a list of clichés. But as a specialist, I guess, it’s my job to dig a bit deeper, to be respectful to those clichés a visitor wants to experience while gently nudging her or him toward something they haven’t thought of. I rarely see anything that picks out the nuances of Britain, that really makes it obvious how different, say, Suffolk is from Somerset.Q: What are the strengths of the British tourist product, for lack of a better term?

A: Wow, that’s a big question, and any answer I’ll give is definitely tainted by my own interests. One thing I will say is this: if you’re just box-checking when you design your itinerary around the country, London, Oxford, maybe York or Chester or Stratford, then north to Edinburgh, something like that, you’re missing some of the best the UK has to offer.

So, those strengths? Landscape is an obvious one. It’s no coincidence that our greatest artists, Turner and Constable, were great landscape painters. Architecture, especially Gothic architecture. Regarding hotels, I love the fact that the hotel scene here isn’t dominated by chains. For all but business travelers, it’s all about small hoteliers and B&Bs.

There are rural corners like the hamstone villages of Somerset or the Cotswolds that are wrapped up in the joy of small place with a single street, some thatched cottages, and the village pub. Which brings me to ale. There’s so much happening around microbrewing and brewpubs, craft ales in the cities and countryside, so take some time to explore that too. You wouldn’t visit France without a spot of wine tasting, after all. And food. The food here, the produce, is way beyond almost everywhere else I visit. (I’m excluding Italy.) The idea that British food is rotten is massively inaccurate these days.

Museums and culture: it’s easy to forget all the in-destination incidentals when you’re planning, but a long weekend museum surfing in most big cities could easily come to $100. Not in the UK, where all the state museums are free, and those state museums are pretty much the best museums there are, in London especially. I doubt there’s a destination anywhere that offers as much culture for your buck.

Q: Where do you like to travel in the UK?

A: I’ve lived in London for 20 years, most of that time in Hackney, so while there are other cities that I like (Liverpool, Cardiff, Sheffield), there are few that I love. An exception would be Glasgow, where I was born. I like Dorset, especially the coast from Lyme to Purbeck. Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, is another spot I love for the coastal scenery. And rural south Somerset.

Q: Regionally speaking, where can visitors find good value and low general costs?

A: It’s worth being very careful. “Low costs” and “good value” are not always, perhaps not often, the same thing. To take an example: rural Wales has some of the best eating in Britain, with exceptional cooking of the local produce offering way better value than the equivalent in southeast England. But it isn’t what you’d call “low cost.” In fact, I think you have to be especially careful about “low cost” eating here. Pay just a little more and you’ll find you’re getting a lot better; you’re paying for a supplier who knows exactly where his meat comes from, for example.

Q: Good points, Donald, but I’d really love for you to recommend some regions that are less expensive than London.

A: More generally, pretty much everything’s cheaper away from London. Less heralded spots worth checking out include rural Carmarthenshire, South Wales, and the Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales, where the walking is superb. Dorset and Somerset are cheaper than Devon and Cornwall. And that little corner of Britain where Dorset, Somerset and Devon meet – it is idyllic.

Q: Where are you off to next?

A: The Cotswolds, by rail, in July. And probably Dorset again before then; it’s one of the areas I specialize in for Frommer’s and there’s a couple of new places I’d like to check out as soon as possible.