English Tourism Week has become an increasingly important feature of the calendar at this time of year, marking the start of the domestic tourism season, and allowing us to celebrate the many different types of attraction that are available in Kent.
It is easy to ignore the sheer variety of what Kent has to offer, simply because it is on our doorstep and therefore so familiar. Quite apart from the coastline, we have world-class buildings like Canterbury Cathedral, the great insight into history provided by Chatham Maritime or Dover Castle, and the famous gardens at Sissinghurst.
Given that all of these can combine a real exposure to history and culture, as well as a traditional tourist experience, it is perhaps a cause for reflection that the most visited attraction in Ashford is the Macarthur Glen shopping outlet. It is of course hugely successful at what it does, and I am delighted that it is doubling in size and extending the range of what it has to offer, but it is hard to argue that it gives us much of an insight into Kentish or national history and culture.
However there are a range of other attractions off the beaten track in our area, and I marked English Tourism Week by visiting one of the more surreal of them—the Big Cat Sanctuary outside Smarden, on the Headcorn road. Surreal because you do not expect to be having a coffee in a café set in the middle of the Kentish countryside, with two lions sunning themselves immediately on the other side of the glass, about three feet away.
The whole sanctuary, which takes in animals no longer wanted in circuses or private collections, and which does not operate as a zoo but rather as somewhere where you can book a stay, is full of such riches. Jaguars, pumas and tigers have their own sections as well as the lions. Altogether it was different from the usual constituency activities for an MP.
English tourism is well worth supporting, because what we have on our own doorstep is so varied. Tourism directly supports more than 2.6 million jobs, and one of the strongest recent trends has been an increase in visits outside London. These visits were up 4% in 2017 from the same period in the previous year. Kentish tourism, in particular, is on the up, and for very good reasons.