Saturday, 18 July 2009

Will the last Welshman in Wrexham please turn off the lights

The summer weather may be faltering but Wales has reason to feel sunny this week. The latest round of figures from the Office of National Statistics shows that Wales is bucking the trend amongst the regions of the UK to report an increase in visitor numbers.
It received 1.1m foreign visitors in 2008, compared to 987,000 in 2007. Both England and Scotland reported a decline in figures. Visitors to Wales are being wooed by the charms of Cardiff, Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons amongst others.
But, I suspect, they are not thronging en masse to Wrexham. In fact, according to a local, internet-based campaign, major changes are needed to lure tourists back to the main town in Northeast Wales.
To find out why, I went to the North Wales border town to meet Wrexham resident and social-networking afficiando, Jane Redfern Jones.
A local community councillor and the editor of the website, Wrexham Today, Jane recently launched a group on Facebook to promote the idea that Wrexham needs to be more Welsh. The group, Wrexham Facebookers, now baosts over 1,100 members - all of them keen to espouse the joys of Wrexham as a hotbed of Welsh nationhood and culture.
"For me it's the Welsh identity that would draw in the tourists," says Jane, who grew up near Chirk in the Ceiriog Valley.
"By branding Wrexham as the borderlands, the council is failing to promote the Welsh heritage. In fact, the idea of promoting Wrexham as a border town simple makes it seem second best to Chester."
Wandering around town after coffee with Jane, Wrexham certainly looks like a place struggling to find its identity in the contemporary, more forward-looking Wales.
Aside from the bilingual street signs and some public art (above, right) reflecting the town's industrial heritage, there is little to say you're actually in Wales.
That is, of course, aside from Gareth Jones, who runs a Welsh gifts stall in Wrexham General Market.
Gareth does a roaring trade in car bumper stickers saying 'Proud to be Welsh' (£1), while figurines of the nationalist hero Owain Glyndwr (£2.99) are positivey flying off the shelves.
But, surrounded by a patriotic fervour of fluffy dragons, sloganeering stickers and figurines of anti-Establishment heroes, does Gareth feel like the only Welshman in Wrexham?
"I'm Wrexham born and bred but not a Welsh speaker. It's just how I am. But whenever I see a Welsh flag, I feel proud," he says.
So, should tourism officials in Wrexham do more to promote Welsh culture? And is a sense of local cultural heritage essential to attract tourists - or do the majority of punters simply come for anodyne shopping centres and bland high-street coffee chains?
Post your comments below and we'll discuss further on the Duncan Barkes breakfast show on City Talk this week.
Over to you ...

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