The Holidaymaker and the PM

By | Category: Travel rumblings

No this isn’t a salacious tabloid story but David Cameron has made a speech on tourism and, as holidaymakers, we are all involved. Or should be. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I can’t remember the last time any Prime Minister paid any more than lip service to it. Yes, there was praise and comment at the appropriate time but hard-core support was limited. Will this time be any different?
Everyone travels, holidays or has a day out so everyone is affected and should be interested. But did the PM ask what we want?
Firstly a few points that he mentioned. He believes that our tourism industry is “incredibly important;” its been looked down upon as “a second class service sector;” its “fundamental to the rebuilding and rebalancing of our economy;” and its “one of the best and fastest ways of generating the jobs we need so badly. He pointed out that its our 3rd highest export earner behind chemicals and financial services and ahead of manufacturing and IT. It’s worth £115 billion to the economy and employing 10% of all of us. In some parts of the country, seaside resorts and places like Stratford-upon-Avon for example the figure is closer to 25-35% of all jobs.
As part of a 4 pronged approach involving central govt., local govt., the private sector and miscellaneous issue that affect tourism he proposes “a whole new approach” because tourism “is one of the missing pieces in the UK’s economic strategy.” From local government, he pointed out that the regional development agencies (this applies just to England) cut across natural boundaries so the agency for the south west and the south east cut across the Cotswolds. So he asked for comment. He says the government will stimulate the private sector by freeing businesses from red tape, by removing employment taxes for business outside the south east and East Anglia and by creating a £1billion regional growth fund. Finally the support of high speed railways will encourage more domestic travel and encourage overseas visitors to travel more widely, improving the delivery of visas for overseas visitors and other issues yet to be identified. The tourism minister, John Penrose, will be asked for a report in October on the way forward.
So what do we make of all this?
Before the election, the Tories spoke of a cabinet minister for tourism. What we have is the same as the last government. A junior minister who also has responsibility for other things as well. If Cameron was serious, some would argue, let there be tourism minister whose brief is just tourism. And yet again, the minister is the lowest of the pecking order of government ministers. (I’m not including PPS’s who only act as ears and eyes.)
Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, the last Culture Secretary (tourism was delegated to his junior minister Margaret Hodge as well) says that there are no constructive policy measures whereas Labour introduced free entry to national museums and galleries as well as creating national parks. Visit Britain’s head, Sandy Dawe agreed with Cameron and said they were working hard at it. But then you could question the value of Visit Britain where jobs change frequently, (apart from directors some of whom have been there 8 years) some large salaries are paid (4 over £100,000 and no senior executive earns less than £80,000) before even questioning their efficency. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) expressed its delight that the government has recognised the importance of tourism and that they would be happy to represent the private sector in conversations with the government. As would probably be the Tourism Society, Tourism Alliance, Association of Leading Visitor Attractions and local government but who will represent us?
We are the most important component in this but we aren’t mentioned. We, as individual travellers and holidaymakers can have the biggest impact because only we decide what we will do. It’s not like buying soap for example. We don’t all need a holiday nor do we take it. Persuading us to do something is going to be one of the key features. What will Visit England do to persuade us to stay here rather than go abroad. And how do Visit Scotland, Visit Wales and Tourism Ireland fit in given that governments other then Westminster have control? Visit Britain attracts overseas visitors to our shores but the other bodies do as well. Isn’t there some duplication here?
One thing successive governments have done to persuade us to holiday in Britain and Ireland is to massively increase Air Passenger Duty (APD) so it becomes more expensive to go abroad. Before the election, the Tories talked of a per plane fee rather than a per passenger one. Only UK Inbound raised this after the PM’s speech. (Incidentally, why do we need this and Visit Britain?) How big an effect it has had is difficult to judge since it has coincided with the recession but taxes of nearly £300 for a family to go to the Caribbean (after November 2010) before any consideration of flights or accommodation will have some impact. We know that price is a key component of where we go. If other countries (such as the Netherlands) do away with their equivalent taxes, not only will we change minds on where to go but so will incoming visitors. Yet nowhere did Cameron (or Bradshaw) talk about the effect of taxes or the damage they might do. What’s the point of £1 billion growth fund if you take it away in APD?
Some town and local councils have done away with tourism officers. Other have banded together since they feel their local tourism board is doing nothing to help. One very large English tourism authority couldn’t even provide to one of its smaller regions a list of who had applied for brochures about it. In parts of Scotland and Wales I have come across places that local councils refuse to fund or where local councils bemoan paying their fees to the national bodies because they think they are under promoted. And we are talking of hundreds of thousands of pounds not small change. Some are seriously considering withholding these payments and going on their own next year.
If the PM is serious and that tourism policy should pervade into other areas so that policy is judged for its effect on tourism then John Penrose and his civil servants have a difficult report to write. Only after we see what’s in it and what gets adopted will we know if the PM is serious.

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