By Steve Howell
Spending Christmas in California, as I am, allows me to informally gauge the level of awareness of Wales on the other side of the world.
When asked the inevitable ‘where’re you from?’ question in shops and restaurants, the good news is quite a few people have heard of Wales.
The not-so-good news is that some are confused about where it is: in one case, to the extent of thinking we are hosting the 2014 Ryder Cup - ‘Gleneagles is in Wales, right?’
On balance I find on these trips to visit my son and his family in Long Beach that Wales is better known than I expect it to be and awareness seems to be growing.
It is also enjoyable to encounter the varied ‘diaspora’ of people with a connection to Wales, including a Gavin and Stacey moment with a soccer coach from Essex who was eager to say he was half Welsh through his father’s family in Swansea.
For a small nation such as Wales to make its mark on the world stage, we have to fully exploit every asset and opportunity - ranging from personal ties to more obviously business-orientated platforms such as new investments and our leading brands.
My Christmas wish list is therefore to see progress on six fronts that I think will be important for Wales’s profile internationally in 2014 and beyond.
Top of my list is the hope that planning for the £756m Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon will continue to move forward successfully in readiness for construction starting in March 2015. This project will create up to 1,850 jobs during the build phase. But the big story is that it could put Wales in pole position to be the supply chain for similar tidal lagoons worldwide by developing skills and production facilities locally.
Next is the urgent need for investment in the creation of a Metro system in south Wales. The Welsh economy has been too dependent for too long on the M4, and we have fallen behind other UK conurbations in developing a fast, reliable, regionally-integrated public transport alternative. This is now crucial to the growth of the existing economy as well as to attracting inward investment.
The third item on my list is closely connected with the first two: namely, the development of effective city-regions based around Cardiff and Swansea. 2013 saw the Welsh Government announce the boards for these bodies, and the big challenge now is to find common ground around practical policies that can make them engines for progress. If the boards help drive forward the Metro and the Tidal Lagoon projects in their respective regions, that would be a great start.
My fourth wish is to see the ambitious Friar’s Walk development in Newport flourish. South Wales’s gateway city suffered badly when an earlier scheme was derailed by the recession, leaving its centre blighted and unattractive to local people and visitors alike. To get Friar’s Walk off the ground, Newport city council has taken the bold decision to underwrite the investment in the hope enough retailers and restaurants sign up. It would surely be good for Wales as a whole if fortune were to favour this brave move.
Fifthly, I am keeping fingers crossed that the crisis at Cardiff City does not become an unstoppable slide to relegation from the Premiership. Economic success requires strong brands, and having two Welsh cities represented in one of the world’s top leagues is therefore of immeasurable value to Wales. Soccer is a universal sport - even in California people ask which Premiership team you support.
And finally, continuing the theme of strong Welsh brands, it would be good to see our universities further expanding their networks internationally, capitalising on Wales’s outstanding academic traditions. The successful mergers to form the University of South Wales and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in 2013 will hopefully be a prelude to a resurgence of our higher education sector as a whole.
This is, of course, just a personal list, and far from exhaustive. But my point is Wales is more likely to build its global profile in 2014 if we focus on our strongest opportunities - and these are undoubtedly some of them. Happy holidays, as they say here.
Steve Howell is chief executive of Freshwater UK. Follow him @stevefreshwater