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14 September 2017

Wales doesn’t need a rebrand – but an electrified railway would be nice

And try showcasing some diverse Welsh talent while you're at it. 

By Shazia Awan-Scully

Having been born and raised in Wales, for me it’s obvious that Wales is a beautiful, vibrant and culturally rich country. I’m fortunate enough to be able to say I’m Welsh and call Wales home.

I am left puzzled, however, that this country that I know and love is failing when it comes to showcasing its many strengths to the world. Last year, Wales had approximately one million international visitors. That might sound impressive – until you realise that there were 2.7 million international visitors to Scotland and 2.6 million to Northern Ireland.

Given that our tourist industry has been so grossly underperforming, (despite being in the global spotlight in recent years with events such the UEFA Champions League final, the Ryder Cup, Ashes Test matches and a Nato summit) it is entirely understandable that the Welsh government has been trying to “re-brand” the country and market it in a positive way. There is much to commend in the resultant campaign by the Amsterdam/Cardiff agency Smörgåsbord. It seeks to portray a positive and upbeat image of Wales, emphasising the beauty of the landscape and the richness of the cultural history, and it has been credited with an uptick in overseas visitors

Yet, watching the marketing videos and reading about the campaign outlined by the agency, and signed off by Welsh government, I found myself failing to recognise the nation that they were talking about.

Is Wales really all just beaches, mountains and castles? It’s true we do have more castles than anywhere in Europe, but as one historian put it, they are the magnificent emblems of our subjugation. The Wales I know is about arts, culture and diversity.

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It’s a place where the chair of next year’s National Eisteddfod, our festival of music and poetry, is a Punjabi man from Wolverhampton, who fell so in love with the language and culture that he made Cardiff his home. It’s a place which nurtures artists and brings to the world stage some of the best sporting stars and creative talent. And who can beat the opportunity to catch a train from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysyliogogogoch – yes, that is the longest train station name in the world!

There was something else unsettling about the videos I watched. Despite watching several, I had barely a glimpse of a non-white face. Wales’s diversity and rich heritage seems to have been somewhat erased.

You would hardly think that Wales was home to places like Tiger Bay – one of the UK’s oldest multicultural communities, where sailors from over 50 countries have settled. Or that contemporary Welsh heroes include Shirley Bassey, Colin Jackson, Jamie Baulch, Colin Charvis, Taulupe Faetau and Ryan Giggs. The Wales we are telling the world about is, apparently, almost wholly rural and white. 

It makes me wonder: who exactly is this campaign trying to attract? Surely, in light of 17 out of 22 local authorities voting to leave the EU, it’s even more important Wales shows it’s open to the world? 

Then there are other features of the campaign that raise eyebrows, such as the fact that Smörgåsbord tell us that they drew around 500 versions of the dragon before reaching the final design. Do we really need to pay for this? The Welsh flag is so iconic in the first place, why not leave it alone?

But maybe the people at Smörgåsbord took their cue from the Welsh government. After all, this was a government that recently – and in all apparent seriousness – planned to spend £630,000 on an ugly, 98ft-wide “Iron Ring” construction at Flint Castle in the name of boosting tourism. The “iron ring” was, of course, the term used to describe the network of fortresses constructed by the brutal English King Edward I as part of his conquest of Wales. Welsh Government Minister Ken Skates, who had originally labelled the Flint plans “perfect”, was forced into a speedy and embarrassing u-turn.

In the long term, what would most effectively bring people to Wales would be a more flourishing economy. That would bring people here in greater numbers – both to visit and to stay. In the shorter term, the best marketing campaign in the world will struggle to overcome the chronically poor transport infrastructure. Anyone who has been to Wales will tell you it is not that easy to get beyond the capital Cardiff. It is often even harder to move around once you are here. Let’s face it – we have no major international airport. The closest thing to it, Cardiff (actually in Barry) almost closed a few years ago as it was doing so badly.

Wales also remains, for a little longer at least, one of the very few nations in Europe without a single mile of electrified railway. Current plans are for the link from London to be electrified only as far as Cardiff. Within Wales, both road and rail links from north to south might, if you were trying to be polite, be described as abysmal. Let me give you one example. To go from my home in Cardiff to the beautiful west Wales town of Aberystwyth is a journey of under 100 miles as the crow flies. But if you are driving, expect the journey to take you at least two and a half hours. If you want to go by train, it will take you four hours and will require you to go via England.

A marketing rebrand which seeks to get a niche group of people to Wales is simply insufficient. Wales is a superb holiday destination and an even better place to live. But if you want to get people to experience our wonderful country, we must showcase all of its diversity. And it should be easy to get around. Tourists head first to London, then Edinburgh, because once there they can travel about easily. Improving transport links to get from one side of Wales to the other would go a long way to boosting our tourist economy. You don’t need to redraw a dragon to understand that.