The Isle of Wight turns to dinosaurs for tourism boost

Dinosaur Isle museum The Dinosaur Isle museum is among the Isle of Wight's dinosaur attractions

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"Dinosaurs are huge," says the Isle of Wight's tourism chief David Thornton as he talks about the latest approach to reviving the island's visitor numbers.

He is turning to creatures who inhabited the island 125 million years ago to help sell it to potential tourists in a new £1m "Year of the Dinosaur" campaign

Tourism accounts for about a third of the island's economy, but the downturn and competition from domestic and international holiday destinations meant 2012 summer visitor numbers were 11% down on 2010.

Belfast's Titanic links, St Ives' art attractions and Liverpool's Beatles connections have shown how having a unique selling point can help in the world of destination marketing. For the island, that means its dinosaurs.

The Isle of Wight has already been named as Britain's "dinosaur capital" by the National History Museum and there have been two major fossil finds there this year.

A new smartphone and tablet app forms part of a £1m campaign to market the island

Its soft exposed cliffs make it one of the most significant places in Europe for prehistoric finds - something which attracts scientists and family fossil hunters alike.

"Obviously as tourist marketing people we're trying to bottle that, stick a label on it and get it on the shelf to try and attract as many people as possible," said Mr Thornton.

'Back to life'

Visit Isle of Wight, a new public-private consortium, has funded dinosaur-themed TV advertising, branding on trains and hovercraft, as well as a social media campaign.

A partnership with Twentieth Century Fox and BBC Worldwide aims to cash in on the Walking with Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie due for release over Christmas.

An augmented reality smartphone app allows users to view dinosaurs from the movie "brought back to life" at various points on the island.

Local palaeontologist Martin Simpson, known as the "The Fossil Man", runs fossil-hunting tours.

He said: "I've been waiting 30 years for this - when I came here no-one was promoting all this, now it's called 'Dinosaur Island'.

"People are becoming aware of our heritage. It is the place for dinosaurs in Europe."

'Big hit'

Although the campaign is mainly about persuading people from London and the home counties to make a trip "abroad" to the island, Visit Isle of Wight is also looking further afield.

Among a group of journalists brought to the island on a publicity tour, Kounteya Sinha, of the Times of India, said the island could be a "big hit" among its readers.

"The fact is it would be extremely short-sighted of any tourist body not to look to the Asian market. Millions come to London already - it's just a hop away from London, but they won't come if they don't know about it.

"The greatest thing about Indian tourists is that they move in herds - just like dinosaurs do.

"They come with children and always look to do something with children. This is the perfect mix - sun, sea, sand and dinosaurs. I love it, it's beautiful."

The success of the campaign will ultimately be gauged by how many visitors cross the Solent.

Beyond a desired "increase" in footfall, Mr Thornton would not be drawn on any specific figures.

But inevitably, any seaside destination is at the mercy of the great British summer weather.

"In the past the destination has probably over relied on a blue sky and a sunny day. This is about getting growth through widening the season at other times of year," said Mr Thornton.

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