Call for Whitehall leadership in tourist industry

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Not reaching its full potential, poorly regarded in Whitehall and in danger of slipping further behind international competitors – these are the key findings of a report from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and Travelodge about the tourism industry in the UK.

The report, ‘Backing UK Tourism: Destination Recovery’, highlights that despite being the fifth largest sector of the UK economy, employing 1.4 million people and generating revenues of £86 billion, further growth of the tourism industry is being held back.

Nominally co-ordinated by one of Whitehall’s smaller departments, the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), the BCC says the tourism industry would be more suited to fall under the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS), which is responsible for generating wealth and jobs for the UK.

Furthermore, says the BCC, DCMS only directly funds around £50 million of the £350 million of public sector annual spend on support for the tourism industry. The rest is filtered through numerous different departments with little or no accountability to the Minister responsible for tourism.

The report says that tourism can ill-afford the current status quo: the industry has the second worst balance of trade tourism deficit in the EU, and inbound passenger numbers to the UK deteriorated by 18% between 1997 and 2007.

“This report mirrors what many of our tourism members feel,” said Richard Glover, chief executive of the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce. “There is a sense that public-sector support is focused on sectors of the economy that have yet to demonstrate their value to Cornwall.

“Despite the obvious contribution that tourism makes – and the possibility for still more – policy-makers ignore some of our most important employers in what are tough times for many. Investment in Cornwall’s tourism is actually reducing and the support structures are, at best, complicated. Now is the time for a clearer plan and more practical investment. Although it is right that taxpayers’ money should be overseen by an accountable body, that plan should be led by the most forward-thinking people in the private sector.”

Commenting on the report, Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the BCC, said: “Tourism will play a key role in Britain’s future economy, but the industry needs stronger, clearer support from Government to reach its full potential. This is a sector which can rapidly create jobs, even in the current economic conditions, yet it suffers from an extremely confused support structure. Ministers need to recognise the potential of the industry and make necessary reforms, which will help underpin the UK’s economic recovery.”

Grant Hearn, Chief Executive of Travelodge, added: “Reforming the support structure in place for tourism will free the industry from its current constraints and allow it to flourish. It is one of the few sectors of the economy which is both currently creating employment opportunities and can contribute a lot more. If that is to happen however a sea-change in attitude within Whitehall towards our industry must take place.

“Tourism should be removed from DCMS and the responsibility for delivery given to DBIS, supported by a full-time Minister tasked with policy co-ordination. Urgent reform can then take place, freeing up VisitBritain to concentrate solely on promoting the UK abroad. If the Regional Development Agencies, domestic tourist bodies and local authorities then had to report directly into DBIS, I have no doubt we would see a far better use of the public money available for tourism promotion.”

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