David Maddox: Tourism bosses seek extra government support to match pulling power of rival nations

AFTER a long hard winter, both with the weather and the economy, there may be some rays of optimism for the future as the Easter holidays kick in.

Traditionally Easter is a time when the tourism industry – which is crucial for economic recovery – really starts to pick up.

But according to VisitBritain, there are reasons for concern.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

While the UK picks up around 30 million overseas visitors a year with an extra million predicted in 2013, it is still only half the number of people who visit France. VisitBritain has a budget of £23m while its French equivalent has more £60m.

But there is also a domestic problem, in that 54 per cent of all overseas visitors go to London and rarely stray from the UK capital. Edinburgh is the only other city in the UK to break one million visitors.

And the importance of tourism is also underpinned in how many people believe it to be a driver for economic growth and jobs. Interestingly, in VisitBritain’s survey the highest figure for those who see tourism as crucial for economic growth was in Scotland, at 67 per cent.

However, in the same survey there was clear dissatisfaction with UK government support of the industry, with every region and nation registering more than 50 per cent in believing the government should do more to promote tourism.

The highest scores in looking for more government support were in Scotland with 72.1 per cent and Wales with 77.9 per cent, which also raised questions about how well devolution is serving the industry. In both Scotland and Wales, tourism is devolved and there are separate VisitScotland and VisitWales quangos.

Perhaps the problem is that a major growth industry is not prioritised in government. Fergus Ewing is the SNP Scottish Government minister responsible for tourism – but his main role is the completely unrelated energy portfolio.

But there are wider problems too.

The VisitBritain executives did not hide their concern over the impact that the anti-immigration message is having.

If ministers go around saying people from abroad are not welcome, the general message subsumes the detail of the context.

Then there is the question of the extra runway at Heathrow.

VisitBritain admitted that the one thing which would help massively boost tourism in the UK as a whole, not just London, would be to increase the air traffic capacity in the south east of England.

It is an issue that has been debated endlessly and now is at least 15 years away from being resolved.

While VisitBritain would not endorse a particular proposal such as an extra runway at Heathrow, or Boris Island in the Thames estuary, it was clear that they want one or other of the proposals to succeed or watch overseas tourists taking their money elsewhere.