The Guardian view on the glories of the north-east: deserving of a wider audience | Editorial

Across the Farne Islands, the spring chorus is once again under way. After wintering on the open seas, thousands of puffins are making their annual journey to England’s north-east coast to nest and breed, jostling for space with vocal kittiwakes, razorbills, eider ducks, shags and Arctic terns.

Happily, tourists will be able to witness closeup one of the glories of Britain’s natural landscape for the first time since 2022. This week, the world-renowned seabird sanctuary welcomed the public back, after an outbreak of bird flu led to a temporary ban on visitors. The reopening has given local boat tour operators a timely boost, ahead of the summer. But on Easter bank holiday weekend, the news is also a reminder of how much the UK’s most overlooked tourist destination has to offer its visitors.

The charm of the north-east’s vast sandy beaches and rugged coastline, and the splendour of Hadrian’s Wall, Bamburgh Castle and Lindisfarne are well known. Inland, the Beamish social history museum is one of the finest and most innovative in Europe, and one of the largest children’s playgrounds in the world opened in Alnwick Castle’s gardens in 2023. But overall, the statistics are stark. Visit England data published last month shows that, compared with other English regions, the north-east attracted the fewest overnight stays by domestic visitors between 2021 and 2023.

The picture is similar when it comes to travellers from abroad. In 2022, there were under 500,000 international visits to the north-east, compared with close to 3 million to the north-west and more than 1 million to Yorkshire. While the Lake District suffers from acute overcrowding and soaring prices, to the east, the majesty of the Simonside hills and the Cheviots remain relatively underexplored.

A beautiful, varied and fascinating region deserves better. Increasing the tourist footprint would provide a considerable boost in a region where the visitor economy is the fourth biggest earner, and there are new opportunities to be seized. But there are already some encouraging signs amid plans to double the numbers over the next decade.

Future footballing success for Newcastle United, now controversially benefiting from the resources of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, is likely to draw more visitors to Tyneside and raise the region’s profile at home and abroad. The regeneration of Gateshead as a cultural hub in the north should do the same. And the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority offers a chance to forge a unified strategy to level up tourist numbers, and turbocharge a national and international awareness-raising exercise.

In his book, Northumbrians, the historian Dan Jackson writes that “north-east England is a place whose story has been misunderstood and its people underestimated”. The same could be said of its attractions. The Cornish Riviera or the Scottish Highlands may be viewed as more glamorous destinations. But wonders such as Durham Cathedral should not just be witnessed through a train window on the way up to Edinburgh, or down to York and London. And there are hidden gems to be discovered. From later this year, a stop-off in Durham will also allow a visit to the spectacular pitmans’ parliament at Redhills, built with the contributions of local miners and beautifully restored with the help of national lottery funds. The rest of the country should wake up to what it has been missing.

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