Back to school after the half term break today and while some children will have enjoyed days out or trips away, two million live in families that can’t afford a day trip to the seaside, never mind a holiday.
Today is also the day that an All Party Parliamentary Group on social tourism is due to publish its findings. Its remit over the last few months has been “to investigate and promote the social and economic benefits of social tourism”, social tourism generally meaning that families on low incomes are helped to afford a break. Family breaks, say supporters of social tourism, can lead to children being more engaged at school, boost social integration, help with health issues and encourage economic growth in under-used resorts or regions which suffer from the ebb and flow of seasonal tourism.
But while not being able to take holidays has been used as a poverty indicator by the government since 2003, it’s easy to see why social tourism is a contentious issue. After all, why should you have a holiday if you don’t have a job to take a break from? Why should the taxpayer fund your vacation if you don’t earn enough to pay for your own?
The debate also touches on issues such as allowing children out of school during term time (to take advantage of off-peak breaks) as well as notions of charity handouts to jobless families and their “naughty children”. As one teacher commented in a Guardian piece earlier this year on charity holidays “There was resentment from some of the families not chosen…We were accused of ‘taking the naughty children’. We didn’t, but perhaps it was understandable that they thought so.”
The Family Holiday Association, the charity where that two million statistic I quoted above came from, helps low income families have time away. The organisation takes referrals from welfare agencies like social services and children’s charities, helping those with a yearly household income of below £26,000 access holidays and who have not had a break for four years.
While social tourism in the UK is somewhat ad-hoc – the Family Holiday Association relies on voluntary donations to fund families in need of a break and invidivual social services departments might have case-by-case funding for respite breaks – the rest of Europe has state-aided social tourism.
French “holiday cheques”, for example, can be used for accommodation, food, transport, leisure and culture. Employees get help to make regular savings, supplemented by employers and social organisations which get reduced taxes in return. The employee redeems the total value of the savings and supplementary contributions in the form of holiday cheques. In Spain, a state and benificiary-funded holiday programme funds breaks for older people which also tackle seasonality in the tourism sector. It gives older people the chance for holidays in off-peak areas with a warm climate.
Lynn Minnaert, lecturer in tourism at Surrey University who runs a programme for the Economic and Social Research Council on social tourism, has contributed to the APPAG report. She argues that while the policy concept is on the UK’s political agenda as a talking point, there is little clear action on social tourism.
Minnaert’s Europe-wide research includes schemes where people have improved their family relationships and been helped into employment or boosted their mental health (this, although published a while ago, is an interesting article by Clare Allen on why people with mental health problems rarely take holidays). Minnaert argues the time is right for the UK to embrace the concept of social tourism but acknowledges that “the misconception that the government will pay people to go on holidays” makes proper debate difficult.
But Minnaert adds that social tourism isn’t simply about “state-funded holidays”; the state could provide a service to put people in touch with holiday and leisure venues that stand empty, from barely occupied seaside B&Bs to underused cafes and restaurants. Resorts with low occupancy could specialize on a more organised basis in holidays for those coming out of hospital, she adds (after all, the health benefits of seawater is what made resorts like Brighton became fashionable in the late 18th century) and be involved in more respite care projects for families with disabled children.
Minnaert says she hopes the APPG report due today will show social tourism is cost-effective and encourage a new social policy to the UK, getting past the “government paying for unemployed to go on holiday” school of thought to a more grown-up debate on the issue.
In terms of practical action, next steps include a forum or network between tourism sector and policy – “on both sides there is willingness to look into this, but no vehicle” – and mapping of under-used holiday provision. Minneart also suggests new joint procurement for people who cannot travel independently or who have not travelled before, transport providers could get involved.
The Family Holiday Association has complied comments from those they have helped, among them a family where the youngest child needed regular hospital treatment and where the father was unemployed and had cancer. The family had a seaside break in Skegness, and although a world away from the hot, faraway destinations most people refer to when they say they “need a holiday”, the long-term impact of the break was priceless. As the family’s support worker said: “I could see that the three week build up to the holiday was as important as the holiday itself. And for the next six months the family lived off the break.”