My Lords, the Office for National Statistics estimates that tourism directly contributed £59.6 billion to the UK economy in 2014, accounting for nearly 4% of the UK’s gross domestic product. Through our five-point plan, this Government are committed to further growing the tourism industry and spreading the benefits of its growth across the whole of Britain by encouraging more visitors to travel beyond the capital.
My Lords, I am delighted that the Houses of Parliament are making a significant contribution. Parliament gets around 1 million visitors a year; 33,000 people sat in our Gallery last year and the purpose-built dedicated education centre is now operating at full capacity. It can take 100,000 pupils a year or 20 school groups a day. May I urge the noble Earl to pay tribute to the 100 or so staff who work in Visitor Services here and urge more parliamentarians to visit the superb education centre?
My Lords, the noble Lord took most of my answers. He is quite right: everyone who works in Visitor Services does a great job. As the noble Lord suggested, last week I went to have a look at the education centre in Black Rod’s Garden, where I was told that 100,000 children will visit each year and how they have the different rooms available to look at. I very much recommend that all noble Lords go and take a look.
Given the importance of the tourism and hospitality industries to the United Kingdom, and the importance of the free movement of people and services within the single market of 28 countries in which we prosper, has the department made any analysis of the jobs that would be lost and the businesses that would close as a result of our absenting ourselves from that crucial market?
My Lords, the noble Lord made a point about how important the entertainment industry and those supporting it are to the economy as a whole and to all those who work in it—what a great job they do. I cannot say whether there has been any assessment of the situation to which the noble Lord referred, but I congratulate all those who work in that area on the work they do.
My Lords, would the Minister acknowledge, a great success story though British tourism is, that it is important that we do not price ourselves out of the market? There is a grave danger of us doing that because we are one of only four countries in Europe that charges VAT at the full rate on hotels and other tourism products. Will he ask his colleagues in the Treasury to model the effect of a major reduction in VAT on tourism? It may be that the lump sum that comes to the Treasury would be greater as a result of the growth of tourism.
My Lords, will my noble friend take the opportunity to pay another tribute to those volunteers without whom many of our most notable visitor attractions, such as English cathedrals, could not be properly open?
My Lords, my noble friend is quite right, in particular when he brings to mind cathedrals, where many people volunteer without any recompense whatsoever.
My Lords, 20 years ago there were hundreds of tourist information centres all over Britain. They are now becoming very rare because local tourist boards and councils cannot afford to maintain them. I hope that the Government will agree that tourist information centres are really important to tourism in this country. Is there anything that the Government can do, possibly through VisitBritain, to try to revitalise tourist information centres in Britain?
My Lords, the noble Earl makes a good point. In 2007 there were 510 information centres; there are now 390. But it is important to note that each location and destination has different views as to what its funding and operational focus should be. One should not ignore the effects of the internet and the information available there for people who want to visit certain areas. Over the weekend I inquired locally where I am in the Cotswolds, which is a big destination area. More than 1 million hits go to our local website from people looking for what they can do in the area.
I am very surprised to hear that the Minister can get on to the website, given where he lives. In the current edition of The House Magazine, the Secretary of State explains that another major issue clogging up his in-tray is the Government’s aim of providing superfast broadband. He goes on to confess that providing a service which is fast becoming as essential as electricity is easier said than done. Last month, 52 chambers of commerce representing 750,000 companies said that companies’ performance is being “severely affected” by poor broadband. Many of these companies work in the tourism sector. Other than wringing their hands, what are the Government doing to remedy this sorry state of affairs?
My Lords, the noble Lord referred to where I live and my broadband speed. He will no doubt be very glad to hear that, for 18 months now, we have had fast broadband in Gloucestershire. I will not tell noble Lords what the mobile signal is like, but the broadband is quite excellent. We have been working at a number of different areas. In my area, Fastershire has been providing much improved broadband in the three counties surrounding Gloucestershire. The noble Lord is quite right that there is still much to do.
The noble Earl referred to 100,000 people coming through the education centre each year. Will he tell the House, if not now, by letter, what proportion come from the London area, and what from the other countries and regions of the United Kingdom? Those figures would be useful.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I will write to him, because I do not have the exact details, but the whole point of our tourism strategy and the Discover England fund is to get people out of London and into the other areas of the United Kingdom to visit these attractions. I will write to him.