Tourism employs over 250,000 people in the Region. Over a third are employed in remote and rural parts of the Region.
The tourism sector is important in the South West economy - tourists spend more than 10% of regional GDP. The Region has strengths in almost all elements of the sector, most noticeably in the provision of: holiday villages, chalets, self-catering accommodation and guest houses; provision of camping and caravan sites; botanical and zoological gardens. The only elements of the sector to perform poorly, compared to the rest of the country, are fair and amusement park activities and activities of travel agents.
The character of the Region is one of the principal factors in attracting tourists to the South West. The coastline is the longest in relation to the area of the Region in the country as well as being varied and attractive. Inland the countryside includes such diverse areas as lowland heath (The New Forest), limestone uplands (the Mendip and Cotswold Hills) and moorland (Bodmin, Dartmoor and Exmoor). Rivers (e.g. Tamar, Severn and the Upper Avon tributaries in Wiltshire) provide many opportunities for angling, both for salmon and course fishing. The historical environment includes prehistoric sites of international importance (Stonehenge and Avebury) castles, stately homes, and historical towns including the World Heritage site of Bath and various cathedral and spa towns.
The Region has the highest proportion of rivers and canals rated in the good/fair category of any region in England, and the highest proportion of identified bathing waters in England (half the total), with over 90% of them complying with EU Bathing Water Directive - above average for England.
The Region has two of the leading seaside resorts in Britain - Torbay and Bournemouth - as well as medium and smaller resorts ranging from Weston-Super-Mare and Newquay to Lyme Regis and Ilfracombe. Many of the resorts have been affected adversely by the long-term decline of the UK long holiday market but have made considerable efforts to enhance their environment and facilities to attract new markets, notably by emphasising the countryside and its attractions.
There are significant differences between the west of the Region (Cornwall, Devon and Dorset) and the east (Avon, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire). The west of the Region has:
In contrast, the east of the Region has:
Accommodation and leisure provision is one of the largest sectors in diversified farm business in this Region, with 51% of diversified farms being involved in activities including bed and breakfast, self-catering accommodation and campsites. Touring caravans and tents provide 39% of bed spaces; adding the self-catering and B&B sectors, the figure is 53%, much of which is on farms. Farmhouses form about 12% of the Region's serviced accommodation stock, whilst self-catering on farms represents 23% of such accommodation in the Region. This sector is clearly of major significance to the rural economy of the South West.
Analysis suggests that overall, tourism in the South West has good prospects for growth but that there will be winners and losers. The old certainties of the post war era when people took a two week main holiday by the seaside, returning to the same place year after year, have given way to a very much more complex and volatile market.