Cumbria’s tourism industry brings in £2.62 billion to the county’s economy and supports around 61,000 jobs.

After London, the biggest brand name in the UK abroad is the Lake District.

It is hoped World Heritage status will be clinched by the National Park Authority soon to boost the area’s worldwide standing even more.

On a more grassroots level, the Solway coastal area is set to land a £1.8 million fund for improving tourism.

Yet the county’s tourism organisation has been dealt a major blow with the resignation of Ian Stephens as managing director of Cumbria Tourism (CT).

His decision follows years of shrinking finances for the Cumbrian organisation.

District councils in Cumbria have withdrawn their funding as they faced increasing spending cuts from central government.

The latest blow came last year when Cumbria County Council axed its annual £89,000 grant as part of a £32m cuts package it was forced to find.

Councillors believed the partnership with the Tour of Britain cycle race provided enough tourism promotion for the county.

That loss of support has caused some to question the need for CT.

Tourism last year brought £267.7m into the Eden District Council area’s economy last year.

The authority meets next week to decide whether or not to continue supporting Cumbria Tourism.

Michael Slee, the council’s economy portfolio holder, said: “We pay just over £4,000 a year and we have to ask if it is value for money.

“We sponsor the Tour of Britain and we get data to show that provides massive income for tourism.

“Although £4,500 is a small amount, we also have to travel on a regular basis to Staveley for meetings and we don’t know whether it will have any relevance for us.”

Mr Stephens will step down in March next year.

He said: “After 14 years as a director of CT, I feel I need a change and the next six months seems a good time to make the move.”

Ian Stephens He stressed that the organisation remains strong, with more than 2,400 members and helping attract more than 43 million visitors last year.

But he is concerned that the share of funding from public and private sources has been reduced to almost entirely private contributions.

He said: “I think the county needs to continue to recognise the importance of tourism.

“I think it is down the priorities list at the moment and we don’t have a coherent county council policy.

“No doubt there are benefits to the communities that enjoy the cycling and the towns and communities on the route will benefit, but it is a short-term hit and the benefit is transient, rather than offering all year round strategic support.”

He says that without a strong tourism organisation, the industry in Cumbria risks fragmenting and will not provide an overall “joined up” offering.

Bill Jefferson was chairman of the Lake District National Park Authority for more than six years and remains a member.

He is a director of Cumbria Tourism and is executive member of tourism and culture and heritage for Allerdale council.

Allerdale contributes up to £10,000 a year to Cumbria Tourism.

Councilor Jefferson says that if it did not exist, the Staveley-based business would have to be invented.

He explained: “Both public and private sectors need a Cumbria Tourism body to focus on destination marketing, providing research and data information systems to support us all and to play a general coordination role pulling together and monitoring new and existing individual initiatives across Cumbria.

“The Lake District National Park is the lead brand, of course, but CT marketing of slipstream brands (such as England’s Solway coast) will be very important to the public sector.”

Dr Brian Irving Dr Brian Irving is tourism and heritage specialist for Allerdale and also chairman of the Silloth-on-Solway Coastal Communities Team.

He backs the idea of a tourism board for the county and says: “You need some form of organisation to take tourism forward outside the Park.”

The Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership has a close relationship with CT and has agreed a future path for the industry.

The LEP has set up a visitor economy advisory group on how to improve tourism and where to get government funding from.

It has also commissioned consultants to provide a tourism growth plan, looking at international visitors; maximising heritage and culture including events such as Taste Cumbria and Appleby Horse Fair and business tourism and economic development.

Graham Haywood, director of the LEP, paid tribute to the work done by Mr Stephens in “difficult times”.

He added: “We see Cumbria Tourism having a big part taking that forward but want to engage with a broad range of partners, including local authorities.”

Eric Robson has been chairman of Cumbria Tourism for 12 years.

He has seen the organisation reduced from employing around 40 people to just 18 full and part-time workers in recent years and he says that without Mr Stephens, the organisation would have folded in the face of repeated cutbacks.

Eric Robson “We have got some of the best results we have ever had in the past two years,” he said.

“There is a need for it (CT). We are a brand-led industry.

“Whether you are talking about baked beans or tomato ketchup, to stay number one you have to constantly update and reinvest.

“We are constantly improving, constantly getting out the message that there is more to Cumbria than the Lake District.

“During the 12 years I have been chairman, we have operated an attract and disperse approach. We use the Lake District brand as a way of getting people here, then get them to go to less well known places.”

Mr Robson said he will continue in his position ‘for the foreseeable future’.

An extraordinary general meeting of Cumbria Tourism is to be held on November 10 to redraw its articles of operation.

Membership will no longer be made up of representatives from each local authority in the county.

Mr Robson says the EGM has been called to streamline the board and ensure that it represents the changes that have happened in recent years.

Graham Haywood Graham Haywood recognises it has become increasingly difficult for local authorities to fund CT but says they all contribute to the industry and that needs to be promoted and coordinated by an organisation.

He said: “It is too easy to say they don’t put money into CT and have deserted the battlefield.

“They are still providing events that could be better coordinated and presented as a Cumbria-wide effort.

“We still regard tourism as a real opportunity for growth.

“It is not just about sustaining what is a very big sector but looking to see how we can grow it.”

Mr Robson says: “All the districts are too small to go it alone. By bringing it together, we can have a much greater voice.

“You see the need for that in times of crisis and difficulty.

“At the time of the floods, it was CT that people looked to, to get the campaign out that we were open for business.

“We have a voice that can be heard.”