What has the British Tourist Authority ever done for us?

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This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the act of parliament that gave us the British Tourist Authority and tourist boards for England, Scotland and Wales.

Britain is great goes the promotion. But how great is the organisation promoting the UK

Of course there was tourism before 1969 and there were organisations to promote the various countries to both each other and the outside world. What the legislation provided was for a more professional and updated approach to tourism.

In those fifty years, what are the achievements of the BTA (known to the public as Visit Britain) and the various home nations’ tourist boards which today are better known as Visit England, Visit Scotland and Visit Wales? Or as three bodies like to call themselves VisitBritain, VisitEngland and VisitScotland forgetting that trendiness in running words together is not necessarily going to engender more visitors to our shores.

Are they responsible for the fact that 40 million visitors come to the UK each year or would they have come anyway given the fact that heritage is one of the biggest tourist draws and programmes like Downton Abbey, royal weddings and Changing the Guard are shown around the world?

Tourism is devolved so the BTA and Visit England operate from the same offices (to the annoyance of the other nations who wonder how money is allotted) whilst Visit Wales and Visit Scotland are run from Cardiff and Edinburgh. Northern Ireland is promoted by Tourism Ireland – a body that links the Republic and the north together yet still causes one side or the other to wonder whether it is being treated fairly in the use of funds and marketing spend.

Today, the UK is the seventh most popular tourist destination, the fourth in Europe and is the fifth largest sector in the UK in terms of GDP. It is more important to the economy than banking or automotive manufacturing and was the second fastest growing sector during 2010-2018.

But how successful is it? There are a number of ways to measure success. If you compare the increase in overseas visitor numbers then in the last few years the UK percentage increase has been less than the world average as calculated by the World Travel and Tourism Council. But if you look at the amount of revenue that it is generating for the UK (and thus possibly saving us tax increases) then £20 billion plus is not to be sneezed at particularly since APD yields only about £4 billion. And that has been growing faster but that could be because of the decline in the pound making all the dollar, yuan, yen and euro money spent by visitors worth more. As I said it all depends on which figures you examine.

In tangible ways the BTA hasn’t brought more public toilets for the tourists, more parking or more amenities that can be enjoyed by both those of us living in the UK and those visiting from abroad. But then, money earned by the activities of the BTA is dissipated into the economy and it is hard to see results other than increased spend in areas where more visitors have been. Money might go into a local area but that doesn’t mean to say that local councils use those funds to keep open local toilets or expand parking.

It is hard then for UK residents to see the benefits of the BTA. Without it would money be even tighter? Jobs might go since tourism is responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs. The top ten working staff at the BTA take home over £1.5 million between them either as pay or pension contributions but it is hard to say that that sum is good value for money since their efforts can be monitored in different ways.

As the top attractions spots get busier and busier then locals bearing the brunt of tourism pollution need to see that tourism is bringing them benefits as well. At the moment that isn’t easily seen. In the future that is something that the BTA and their paymasters – the Department for etc – need to address. If they don’t locals might turn against tourism leading to the sort of demonstrations that have been seen in places like Barcelona.

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