How Overseas Visitors See Us

By | Category: Travel rumblings

When I wrote a few days ago about taking overseas visitors to the Brecon Beacons so they can see that the UK isn’t all suburbs, I received e-mails some saying no, visitors don’t think like that and others saying that the UK is often seen by the TV and films that are around. Time plays little part, some of you said, so people still think that the UK is like Upstairs Downstairs (even the new series) or Downton Abbey.
I was in Utrecht recently and came across a travel agency shop that was featuring London (or England or the UK -it was hard to tell what since there were no signs) in the window. In the window were London black taxis, two red telephone boxes, 2 yeomen of the guard, (one in blue and black!) a large London tube map and signs for Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and another that I’ve forgotten. So that is how they promote us to potential visitors. To Americans, the heritage is a strong point and any Anglo-American links like Magna Carta which, I think I’m right in saying, influenced the clauses that are in their Declaration of Independence interests them.
But it is TV and film that plays the greatest part in how we are seen. If it is positive and modern, fine but period pieces make some people think we are like that. My mother (although Folkestone born and bred) has lived abroad for 45 years but was surprised to find that there was still farmland (not green belt and apart from parks) within 20 miles of central London. An Australian naval officer wanted to go and see the Cutty Sark in Greenwich (this was before the fire) and to get there we had to go over the North Downs and Badgers Mount in Kent. “But this is so close to London,” he said “and you still have woodlands.”
When Gosford Park came out about 8 years ago, Americans asked where they could go and see houses like that. Before I could reply that there are hundreds in all the countries I realised they thought many of us lived in places like that.
All those fog-bound Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes stories meant a lot of people thought we had dingy alleys in the East End of London. All Creatures Great and Small gave a view of the Yorkshire Moors that people still talk to me about saying that one day they would like to see places like that. Every country or destination – if it is known widely at all – has some stereotypic view. Kangaroos don’t hop down the main streets of Australian cities and when the tourist authority showed an image of a Kangaroo on a beach there were howls of anguish that they weren’t showing Australia as it really is. Few destinations do; they pander to preconceived ideas in order to get people in and let them see for themselves.
The problem is, as the Australian experience shows, it is very difficult to change perceptions. Look at what overseas people generally think of British food. And obviously the travel agent in Utrecht was telling the Dutch what they expected to see in London, not necessarily what really is there. How disappointed will some be when they don’t see a red telephone kiosk or a beefeater on the first street they come to?

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