Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:19 pm on 30th April 2003.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips) 7:19 pm, 30th April 2003

My Lords, the House is grateful for the opportunity provided by my noble friend Lord Pendry to draw attention to the vital importance of tourism for Britain's economy. I congratulate him on his speech, which raised most of the issues that we must consider, and also on his work on tourism over many years in both Houses, which enables him to bring real insights to the issues from which we have benefited today.

The centrality of a vibrant tourism industry to our national life is something to which my noble friend first drew attention in Breaking New Ground, a document that formed the Government's view on tourism and led to the publication of our first ever tourism strategy, Tomorrow's Tourism, in February 1999. The House will recognise that his commitment to the industry is matched by that of the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, who exceeds him in longevity in the field. We recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, has had expertise of these topics for a long time. We are extremely grateful to two powerful speakers for launching the debate.

There is no doubting the huge role that tourism plays, not only in the economic life of this country, but also in its social and cultural life. Britain is the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. In 2001, tourism contributed £74 billion to the national economy. There are 2.1 million people directly employed in tourism—around 7 per cent of employees in Great Britain. Since 1992, tourism has been responsible for one in six new jobs. That subject formed the burden of the remarks of my noble friend Lady Dean, who indicated how crucial the industry was to the economy.

I note the noble Baroness's suggestion that it might be beneficial and more accurate to locate responsibility for tourism in the Department of Trade and Industry. On this occasion, I shall resist that suggestion and stay loyal to the department that I represent today. We believe that we are meeting the challenges of tourism. I recognise that the challenges are acute—not just that tourism is a significant part of the economy, but that it is predominantly arranged in small components and small industrial enterprises mostly thought to be given effective government support. That is why some issues of tourism support are perhaps more difficult than those in any other industry that runs into crisis.

The tourism sector is most prone to crises that are difficult to forecast or to respond to in the short term. Several noble Lords reflected on the devastating year of 2001 when foot and mouth disease caused enormous damage to our agriculture. But we all recognised when those points were made that the outbreak had a similarly devastating effect on our tourism industry. Much of our attractive countryside was out of bounds to visitors during that period.

September 11th matched and outweighed the previous crisis affecting travel from the United States—the Lockerbie bombing. The travelling public in the United States are unusually sensitive to the threat of outrageous acts causing death and destruction. Although such acts may dominate the media for a relatively short period, unfortunately their reverberations in the tourism industry can continue for years afterwards. It took us many years to recover our trade from the United States after Lockerbie.

We are still sustaining the effect of the devastating anxieties produced in American society as a result of September 11th. Inevitably, the war in Iraq contributes to that aspect. Although the medical profession will identify that the present threat of SARS in this country looks very muted, and although the outbreak of that frightening disease will probably cause limited numbers of deaths across the globe, the uncertainty of the situation and its impact will mostly affect tourism. We pay the price, even though objectively the risk involved may be limited. That is the nature of the tourism industry.

I say to my noble friend Lord Harrison that we have sought to learn lessons from such disasters. They are not easily overcome. It is not easy to rebuild confidence after it has been shattered through events over which none of us has any control. I assure him and the House that the tourism industry emergency response group set up after the September 11th horror has made detailed contingency arrangements to respond quickly to any challenges that the industry might face in future. That does not mean that the response can always be dramatically and immediately successful. But I assure the House that we recognise the importance of having machinery to try to absorb the shocks of such unforeseen events.

It is vital that we market England to the domestic audience, which, after all, is our largest and most robust market. Secondly, it is important to establish a single voice for the industry, which we have now created. It is important that the industry can respond quickly to such events and make the most of new opportunities as they arise.

Following the creation of the tourism alliance in September 2002, the Government and industry developed the million visitor marketing campaign. That unprecedented partnership contributed to recovery compared to the same period in the difficult year of 2001. An additional 1.64 million visits to the UK were made in 2002. It also provided a model for the long-term future of Britain's tourism industry.

We have built on that model with an ambitious plan for a new framework for tourism. The main elements are the launch on 1st April of VisitBritain, as several noble Lords recognised, which is a lead body combining the strength and skills of the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourism Council. Its remit is to promote inbound tourism and to market English tourism to a domestic audience. There will be an increased role for regional development agencies in England in providing strategic leadership for tourism. In addition, there will be a closer engagement of private industry in partnerships at all levels and proactive industry sponsorship by the DCMS.

We are concerned that initiatives to improve skills and training should continue. There should also be a fresh look at accommodation quality assurance schemes. I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that we might also consider the creation of a web site to market effective accommodation. There is no doubt that, in the more distant past, British tourism suffered from a general reputation of having a less-than-successful strategy for ensuring that accommodation was up to standard. Improvements, which are appreciated in many parts, have taken place in recent years. But we must communicate that effectively and improve our marketing in that regard.

The benefits of the new structures of VisitBritain will ensure that England receives an excellent marketing service, co-ordinated at national and regional level to remove duplication and to make the most of the collective effort of all sectors promoting tourism here. The tourism industry in England will now have a single point of contact at national level for the promotion of England at home and overseas, and for information about tourism in England and the rest of Britain. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, advocated powerfully the case for Scotland. I emphasise that Scotland's case is duly recognised. VisitBritain's role in promoting the whole of Britain overseas is not affected by its new remit to market England domestically. VisitBritain will, of course, be the focal point for ensuring that we tap into and continue to expand the market for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for visitors from overseas. It will ensure that strong and separate brand identities for England, Scotland and Wales are retained and developed, while encouraging a more coherent marketing agenda throughout Britain.

A good deal of support, spending and promotion for the development of the tourism industry has always been done at regional level. In the regions of England, DCMS has devolved responsibility for the delivery of tourism strategies to the regional development agencies, with the aim of embedding tourism deeply into regional economic development strategy and to ensure that policy and product development is relevant and deliverable. That is essential because, as several speakers emphasised, different parts of the country have different selling points, different attractions and different support needs.

I recognise the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, which was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that tourism may not be an unalloyed boon to a particular area. There should always be a balance between, on the one hand, the needs of local communities and the people who live there and, on the other, the needs of the tourists. It is important that we recognise that particular parts of the country can suffer dreadful privations from the onslaught of tourists in certain months of the year. Cornwall stands out as an example of that, although it is also true that the economy of Cornwall is crucially dependent on successful tourism, given the limited economic opportunities in the county. A balance must be struck, and the marketing must be effective.

The Government are aware that approximately 70 per cent of in-bound visitors to the UK come through London. The value of tourism must be spread throughout the regions, and that is one of the Government's key priorities. We recognise and take pride in the enormous range of attractions with which London presents the visitor. We are well aware that, when we market the delights of Britain abroad, London is bound to feature hugely. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for emphasising that fact this evening. It is also the case, of course, that we want London to be the gateway for tourists to enjoy other parts of Britain, rather than being the sole port of call before they move on to another capital offering similar but lesser delights. The country of Britain can offer a different experience to that offered by London, and it can be greatly rewarding.

The private sector will play a key role in the new arrangements, helping to set the marketing agenda. It will work in co-ordination with VisitBritain to promote a coherent message about what the nations and regions of Britain have to offer. There will be campaigns funded jointly by industry, regional and local government and VisitBritain. We see so much duplication of effort and so many mixed messages. The trick is to get industry, regional government and VisitBritain to make a concerted effort to get the most for Britain, the tourism industry and the wider economy.

The noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, mentioned the level of direct government funding to the industry. He was slightly more generous than his Front Bench colleague in recognising the contribution made by government funding. To the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, who put her comments about government funding in a more astringent and critical form, I say that, of course, we would like to see more money spent. The noble Baroness will recognise that we are committed to spending £10 million more on tourism. DCMS provides £50 million of direct government funding a year, and, on top of that, the Government pledge hundreds of millions of pounds in support of the arts, sports and galleries, which, as noble Lords recognised, are of benefit to tourism. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, who was most emphatic about the importance of our national museums and art galleries to our appeal to tourists.

I take the noble Baroness's criticism in the spirit in which it is intended—as an attempt to increase the budget for my department. I look forward to its being reflected in the Chancellor's distribution next year. However, I counsel the House to recognise that, although it is easy for the Opposition to call for more money to be spent, it is more difficult for them to square that with their commitment to a 20 per cent reduction in overall public support for all aspects of British national life. I leave the noble Baroness to wrestle with that issue on another occasion.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London stressed, churches and cathedrals are a vital part of our cultural heritage. A Force for Our Future, published in December 2001, recognised the important links between tourism and heritage sites. Westminster Abbey is one of London's premier attractions as well as being a UNESCO world heritage site. I recognise the point that the right reverend Prelate made about the costs borne by the Church authorities that are not related to the purpose for which the churches are there but are occasioned by the use to which tourists put the buildings. I assure the right reverend Prelate that the department intends to meet the Church Commissioners and members of the Archbishops' Council this summer to discuss a broad sweep of issues relating to ecclesiastical heritage. I have not the slightest doubt that, at those meetings, the right reverend Prelate's voice will be appropriately and significantly heard.

We must increase the productivity and competitiveness of the tourism industry. We are aware of the success of some aspects of the German tourism industry, to which reference has been made. There is room for improvement in the way in which we organise some of our facilities in the United Kingdom. That is why we are concerned to have a proactive tourism industry sponsorship agenda, aimed at improving the effectiveness of the industry. The aim is to develop a competitive and sustainable tourism industry. We must enhance the skills of our people in that respect, but we should not sell ourselves short. For instance, we should recognise that, although the French are good at emphasising that they are the culinary leaders of the world, lists of top restaurants show that the greatest concentration is in the United Kingdom. We should not get caught up in age-old stereotypes about success, and we should pay due regard to what we have in this country. We should enhance our skill levels, our performance and what we offer tourists. We should blow our own trumpet more vigorously than in the recent past.

Reference has been made to Lord Kim and Mr Kim: Dr Kim Howells is the Minister for Tourism in the Commons. Of course he is busy with legislation; all Ministers lead a busy life. However, Ministers are aware that legislation is one dimension of the job and that the work they do outside Parliament is another. Dr Howells is extremely vigorous in promoting tourism. Only last week, he launched the campaign to market England—"Enjoy England"—with the help of television advertisements. It is the first time for a long time that there have been advertisements on television specifically directed towards marketing England. I have no doubt that they will have a beneficial effect. The campaign that my honourable friend has launched is a unique partnership with a value of approximately £4 million and brings together, for the first time, regional development agencies, VisitBritain and the private sector. I have not the slightest doubt that that campaign will bring considerable benefits.

In this respect, I emphasise that there are a whole range of issues on which we focused today in a somewhat critical vein. But there are areas on which we should congratulate ourselves for making progress. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, emphasised that there are areas of Britain, in terms of attractiveness, to which we have not paid significant regard in the past. I welcome his contribution and that of my noble friend, Lord Pendry, that we need to look at the issue of resorts and the way in which we can enhance their attractiveness so that more people stay at home to enjoy the benefits of Britain.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, raised his concerns about the issue of casinos and whether they would bring benefits to seaside resorts. I am not sure that he would say that if he were in Monaco now, nor am I suggesting that we could—or would even want to—replicate that level of casino industry here. But there are a number of our seaside resorts which would not mind just a tiny fraction of the resources which come within that framework, which is almost totally based on casinos. Therefore, I am not prepared to accept that criticism too fully.

In conclusion, I want to emphasise that we live in a country which is uniquely well placed to attract tourists and we attract them in very large numbers. Of course, we could do better. But we all recognise that we have historic cities, beautiful countryside, great stately homes, a wonderful coastline, internationally renowned sporting events and facilities, world-class museums and galleries. They all need to be marketed to people who would benefit enormously from visiting this country and taking advantage of what it has to offer. Very few countries can compare with the range which we have to offer.

I recognise that there are areas in which we can do better. However, I have not the slightest doubt that the VisitBritain campaign, which is setting out in a co-ordinated way to market the glories of this country for the benefit of potential visitors—of course, in the long term to the benefit of ourselves too—will be successful. It is on that basis that I conclude this debate on an optimistic note.