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Government must act to save Kent businesses from travel chaos, says tourism chief

Government leaders need to take ownership of cross-channel travel chaos, which is threatening to cripple Kent's tourism industry.

That's the message from Deirdre Wells, chief executive officer for Visit Kent, who says recent delays at Dover and Folkestone, and the resulting gridlock on Kent's roads, were a predictable effect of Brexit and need to be addressed quickly.

Speaking to KentOnline she said Kent businesses had hoped this year would be an opportunity to recover in the aftermath of the pandemic, but transport chaos meant they were facing losses again.

"Many of them had suffered during Covid with 50/60% losses, so all the forecasts for this summer were very strong indeed," she explained. "What I'm hearing from a number of our businesses is that again this weekend they were losing 40-50% of footfall.

"It's incredibly difficult and distressing for the people who are going abroad, but what effectively happens is the main arteries into Kent get completely gummed up. It's very difficult for people to get around and do their daily business."

She said the problems were damaging the perception of Kent, adding: "We're doing all we can to promote the county and all the fantastic assets that it has, and the wonderful landscape and are coast and heritage, and if all people are seeing is lorry park then that is really difficult.

"I think the important thing is it gets resolved soon. I think we all understand why it's happened. It was an inevitable outcome from Brexit. I saw this modelling four or five years ago, what could happen if we ended up leaving without free movement.

Deirdre Wells, chief executive of Visit Kent
Deirdre Wells, chief executive of Visit Kent

"It's inevitable but we've got to get past this and we've got to get a solution for our holiday makers, whether they're going abroad, or whether they're French people coming in, we need this to be better, not only for Kent but we've got to get this right for the UK.

"We need to have a system at the port that is reflective of our position as a major economy around the world, and we need to get people around the table to have a conversation about how do we do that.

"We need a better relationship with out French counterparts, we need to be collaborative, and we need to be constructive. I don't think pointing the finger helps anybody because basically what we want to do is support business on both sides of the Channel."

She added that Visit Kent was trying to encourage more people to travel by train into the county, particularly those travelling from London, but that significant tourist attractions were being affected by falling visitor numbers.

"Am I optimistic that we've seen the worst of it? Not so much. I'm worried about what the next few weeks are going to bring, and I'm even more worried about what the impact will be for this time next year because what we need is for people to see Kent as a fantastic destination to visit, to drive through effectively but also to stop and spend some time.

"We have to deal with what we've got to deal with at the moment, but I would be fully supportive of Kent County Council's appeal to government that this needs a review by the national infrastructure commission. We need this sorted."

Earlier today it was revealed the critical incident declared at Dover due to cross-channel chaos has been stood down, but business owners say more must be done to prevent a repeat.

The visitor economy is worth £4 billion to Kent and £157 billion to the rest of the country, and Deirdre thinks that future leaders of the country need to recognise its importance.

She added: "It's important and it was, prior to the pandemic, one of the fastest growing service industries, so I'd like their personal commitment to the visitor economy, and to say we need to get out infrastructure right.

"The decision to leave the European Union has been made but we need to make sure the systems we've put in place to replace that are supportive of the economic growth."

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