Public Services Management: The spice of life: Liza Donaldson looks at the Bradford Festival, which has boosted the city's tourist industry

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The Independent Online
MAGIC has been in the air in Bradford for the past three weeks. The festooned city-centre streets have been buzzing with costumed folk, music has been humming till late and above the city's Lister Park, hundreds of helium balloons have danced their way into the sky.

A plethora of events from street performances, jazz, classical and Peruvian music, not to mention colliery bands, breathtaking stunts by the Chinese State Circus, Egyptian dance workshops, Sierra Leone batiks and more have been on show.

Bradford Festival, launched by the city council in 1987 and now run by a charity company, is unique. The festival, which finished yesterday, plays a star role in the council's tourism strategy, which recognises that you do not have to have Roman remains or a Norman castle within your purview to make tourism succeed.

Where Bradford council made a quantum leap, now being imitated by many others, was in realising that its recent past like 'the dark satanic mills' as well as contemporary history - notably its cosmopolitan population of 69 different races, including 15.6 per cent non-white people, mainly of Asian origin - were the jewels in the crown of its tourism plan.

When Bradford, the one- time wool capital of Europe, launched itself in 1980 as a tourist attraction - the first inland, industrial town to do so - the idea was greeted as a huge joke. But the joke is now on the sceptics.

The city's tourism industry is worth pounds 64m, second in size only to the area's financial sector dominated by the local building societies, such as the Bradford & Bingley, which have national reputations. It attracts more than six million national and international visitors a year - around four times the number who go to the Isle of Wight, a traditional holiday destination.

Mike Cowlam, marketing manager of Bradford Metropolitan Council's economic development unit, confesses: 'To be honest the launch was done tongue in cheek. We had a brass band playing 'On Ilkley Moor B'aht 'At.' '

The first tours were called 'Stone and Steam' and celebrated Victorian stone mill buildings and the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway - the setting for the Railway Children film. Visitors were treated to roast beef with Yorkshire pudding - served before the meat course, as is customary.

Suddenly the doom and gloom publicity that the loss of 63,000 textile and engineering jobs had created, together with tales of destitution, prostitution and the Yorkshire Ripper, was replaced by positive media coverage, even if there were still chortles over the idea of Bradford as a holiday resort.

But it was the 'Flavours of Asia' tour - subtitled 'A feast of food, fabrics, festivals and faiths' - launched in 1987, which caught the public's imagination. 'Flavours' helped win Bradford a national tourism prize for the second time as the fastest-growing tourist destination in England.

The attractions included a 'curry mile', jewellery stores selling intricate Asian ornaments, sari centres with an Aladdin's cave of fabrics, grocery stores, sweet centres and visits to temples and mosques.

Leaflets explained how to wear a sari, and gave basic information on Asian spices, foods, sweets, dances and faiths. Among the aims of 'Flavours' were the economic goals of generating more hotel, restaurant and retail business, but also social objectives such as improving race relations by changing negative images of ethnic minorities and promoting greater understanding of other cultures and religions.

The same year, two other developments also helped pave the way for the festival launch. The area had scooped the National Museum of Photography Film and Television in 1983, in partnership with the Science Museum. Thanks to an injection of European money, its Edwardian Alhambra Theatre was renovated to its former glory.

Bradford council's chief executive, Richard Penn, explains that the council still supports the festival it launched to the tune of around pounds 250,000 because 'it is a bloody good festival and we try to support anything good that is happening in the city'.

The council had a leadership role to play in the community and the festival offered benefits both to visitors and to the citizens of Bradford who could all enjoy the shows which were 'neither elitist nor populist, but with elements that are fairly highbrow and an awful lot of community events'.

He continues: 'Bradford is a very cosmopolitan city with lots of different races and a strong tradition of welcoming immigrants whether they are from Europe or the New Commonwealth. The festival tries to play to that, not just English, but Irish and Estonian and so on. We are keen to develop that synergy between different communities in the city.'

At the same time, he says: 'We have taken tourism very seriously as a major business.' It is an employer of 11,000 people and, despite some relatively low paid jobs, an industry making a major contribution to the local economy.

Allan Brack, a director of the festival's charity company, says it generated 500,000 attendances at events and cost a total of pounds 550,000, paid for with both public and private money. There was very little vandalism to the street decorations left out at night, and right-wing groups had been kept at bay.

The public was clearly on the side of the festival, with a huge amount of community involvement. For example, there were over 20,000 school children engaged in workshops and projects and parades during the festival, and parties in old people's homes and the streets. Mr Brack feels the council's involvement across departments from housing, recreation, social services and education was a vital element.

He adds: 'A festival of arts is a very potent force. Once people feel engaged festivals seent to deal with a whole range of issues - from the city's image, to its morale, from the education and creative process to community relations. It has quite a profound effect.'

His words are borne out as the city's reputation becomes more international. The traffic is two-way - Japanese and American coach parties visit the festival and city and nearby Bronte country, while the council's economic development unit chiefs have been invited to talk about tourism in Greece, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities cites Bradford as a case history in its campaign to lobby the Government for stronger support for tourism - an industry predicted to be the largest in the world by the year 2000.

Bradford is already geared up for the millennium and it believes its festival culminating in the jamboree or 'Mela' in Lister Park has something to offer everyone. Mr Brack points out: 'We are facing the millennium in seven years. Lots of people are going to want to celebrate that. They should be practising now.'

Claire Holder, chair of the independently run Notting Hill Carnival in London, says they were aiming 'to put some colour into Britain', but also has another reason why festivals should be supported. 'Festivals' she says, 'are very important to the lives of people. Revolutions and festivals go together. If you don't have a festival, you will have a revolution. So give the people a festival - it causes less pain.'

(Photograph omitted)