Opinion: How the Lib Dems can help tourism thrive

It may be easy to forget when it’s on your doorstep every day, but the UK is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. You only have to think about the stunning views from the Brecon Beacons, the tranquillity of the Norfolk Broads or the thriving cultural scene in Liverpool to understand why that’s the case.

The coming years boast some fantastic opportunities for tourism in the UK. At conference, Liberal Democrats will debate our tourism policy outlining how to make the most of them.

Tourism is one of the UK’s largest industries, employing over two million people. The benefits of tourism are clear. A thriving visitor economy can provide employment, investment, tax revenue and regeneration in a range of communities. For every £1 we spend promoting tourism, we gain £5 in re-investment. But tourism’s benefits are not purely financial. It can also help to preserve our national heritage and encourage cross-cultural understanding.

Tourism once boomed in this country. But despite the UK’s potential, Britain’s share of the global tourism market has fallen by 16% over the last 20 years. Only London is currently immune from falling visitor numbers. The amount of money UK citizens spend abroad far exceeds the amount overseas visitors spend here – known as the tourism deficit. Under Labour, this deficit has quadrupled, currently standing at £18 billion.

The government seems determined to hinder tourism’s development at every opportunity. Visa prices were raised by 150% in 2005 and then a further £15 out-sourcing charge was added in 2006 – a clear disincentive for prospective tourists. To make matters worse, the government has frozen the overseas marketing budget of VisitBritain – the tourist board responsible for promoting Britain as a tourist destination. The budget has stood still at £35.5 million for 10 years, which means that, in real terms, it has actually decreased. This financial squeeze and pressure on resources forced VisitBritain to cut its staff by one-fifth last year.

The London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 present a fantastic chance to reverse some of the negative trends in the tourism industry. But the government are failing to capitalise on this opportunity. The ‘Tourism 2012 Charter’, outlining a strategy to maximise the tourism potential of the Games, was originally no more than an A4 page. The final version has been delayed twice now, until September. The investment, infrastructure and planning required to make tourism a success in 2012 and beyond is being jeopardised by the government’s inability to provide clear policy direction.

In less than a week, in Brighton, Liberal Democrats will debate our tourism motion which we hope will be welcomed as the party’s official policy. It is an important part of any policy framework to consider the environment and sustainability, and tourism is no different. The Green Tourism Business Scheme set a standard for how sustainable tourism might work across the UK, and this is certainly something we would like to build on.

We also need to capitalise on the tourism potential of our seaside resorts. Tourism can provide a vital source of income for community regeneration. An improvement in the rail network, particularly to end-of-the-line towns, would prove an effective way to attract both overseas and domestic tourists to these resorts.

Even though England accounts for 85% of tourism revenue, it does not have its own separately funded tourism board to promote England. We propose that “VisitEngland” – a tourist board similar to VisitScotland and VisitWales – should be established to promote England domestically and internationally as a tourist destination.

If tourism is to thrive in the UK, funding for tourist boards must be assured, and communication between stakeholders should be encouraged. Local organisations through to national bodies must work together to create suitable and sustainable tourism strategies for each area. With a more joined-up approach – and sufficient investment – Britain will reinforce its reputation as a world class tourist destination, capitalising on the opportunities that the next few years will bring.

* Don Foster is MP for Bath, and Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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3 Comments

  • Tourism is one sector of the economy where the state can play a useful role. Firstly, through local government and the network of regional planning and economic development quangos. Secondly, through English Heritage and English Nature, both of which are executive agencies of DEFRA, and the various National Park authorities. Thirdly, through strategic injections of cash.

    Hastings is a seaside town with a stunning location and less than two hour’s travel from London. It has a lot of good property, and is right next door to Rye, Winchelsea and Battle. Yet, despite the conspicuous wealth surrounding it, Hastings is a depressed backwater, and virtually dead as a tourist destination. No conference centre, few hotels, above average unemployment and a high crime rate. Surely a prime candidate for regeneration?

    We must also avoid undermining the tourist industry, as we did in 2001 when we introduced marshal law in rural Britain and spent £8 billion of public money compensating farmers for the burning of their livestock on open funeral pyres. Next time there is a foot-and-mouth pandemic, vaccinate and tell the NFU where to get off.

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