Editor’s Blog: Cameron looks to the past

Addressing an industry audience at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park this morning, prime minister David Cameron sought to place British heritage at the centre of the national tourism offering.

Attacking the previous government for its fascination with Cool Britannia, Mr Cameron argued the tourism sector should focus on national parks, seaside towns, heritage sites such as castles and country houses, museums, galleries, and theatres.

Only then would Britain be able to take its place at the top table of international destinations.

“I want to see us in the top five destinations in the world. But that means being much more competitive internationally,” argues Mr Cameron.

“We should be proud of our potential because we are proud of our country and what it has to offer. I love going on holiday in Britain.”

National Heritage

But is this not already the case?

A recent survey by VisitBritain revealed, of the 30 million overseas visitors to Britain last year, 5.8 million visited a castle, five million took in a historic house and 6.4 million visited a religious monument.

The Tower of London alone saw 2.38 million foreign visitors last year, while St Paul’s Cathedral received 1.8 million overseas visitors.

Is this not Britain putting its heritage first?

Mr Cameron seems to have taken the idea of Labour pandering to the idea Cool Britannia exclusively from the photograph of Liam Gallagher attending a drinks reception at 10 Downing Street over a decade ago.

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Overseas Visitors

Mr Cameron also alluded to plans to speed up the process of getting visas for visitors from India and China as a way of boosting visitor number. A good start no doubt.

How the prime minister expects these new visitors to get into the country is another matter. Virtually as soon as his party was elected, Cameron ruled out further expansion at Heathrow Airport (as well as all other airports in the south of England).

Without an increase in capacity at these airports there simply cannot be a significant increase in visitor numbers to the United Kingdom.

As ABTA head of public relations Luke Pollard explains: “If the UK is to prosper as a business and holiday market this demand for an increase in capacity is a challenge the government will have to face.”

And what of the price of flying to the UK?

Air Passenger Duty (APD), initially a Labour policy, is set to double in November, raising the coalition government £2.3 billion from 2011.

This is a sum which comes directly from the tourism sector, as airlines pass on the cost to consumers making it proportionally more expensive to holiday in the United Kingdom.

A cut to this tax – even during a period of austerity – can only encourage holidaymakers to visit – regardless of the length of time it takes to acquire a visa.

While chancellor George Osborne promised a review in the Emergency Budget, there is little hope of a change among industry insiders.

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Tony Blair discussing tourism policy with Noel Gallagher

UK Tourism

Are these not the real issues Mr Cameron and the coalition government should be addressing, rather than criticising Tony Blair’s choice of drinking buddy in 1997?

Indeed, the previous government’s policy on tourism is not as patchy as Mr Cameron would have us believe.

In 2001 the Labour government removed entry charges to all UK museums and galleries – including the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum and National Gallery. Visitor numbers subsequently “shot up” according to the Museums Association, with some locations seeing attendance increase by 80 per cent.

Measures such as these can only encourage an increase in tourism numbers, from both domestic and international markets.

Mr Cameron also attacked the previous administration for undermining the efforts of the UK tourism sector by appointing eight different tourism ministers in 13 years. Perhaps it would have been prudent to allow John Penrose – the new, part-time, minister – to make the case today?

Perhaps VisitBritain’s decision to put out a guide on how to be nice to foreign travellers may go some way to explaining why overseas travellers steer clear of the UK?

Until these warm words are matched with firm commitments, Mr Cameron government will continue to react with nothing but scepticism from the UK travel sector.