Failure to take tourism seriously is a big mistake

WHICH industry is worth &pound;114bn, is responsible for 2.65m British jobs and represents 8.2 per cent of UK GDP? Perhaps surprisingly the answer is the tourism industry. So, given the clear importance of this key economic activity, it is surely worrying to consider that tourism bosses believe their business interests are not taken as seriously as they ought to be in Whitehall.<br /><br />Chief executives from companies and attractions including the London Eye, Le Pont de la Tour restaurant and budget hotelier Travelodge have demanded the government strip responsibility for tourism from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and hand it to the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.<br /><br />They argue tourism is being held back by a lack of focus in government, leading to wasted opportunities for an industry that could be one of the strongest performing in the UK.<br /><br />Each year &pound;350m of taxpayers&rsquo; money is spent on promoting UK tourism. Yet the bosses believe the absence of a core message means the cash is frittered away on confusing advertising campaigns as various public bodies compete against each other for tourists.<br /><br />While banks, cars and trains have been going cap-in-hand to the government, the tourism industry is not asking for more money. All it wants is a co-ordinated and better use of existing funding to take advantage of the opportunities to boost Britain&rsquo;s attractiveness as a destination for visitors.<br /><br />Incredibly, for such a major British industry, there is no direct ministerial responsibility. Barbara Follet, minister for culture, media and sport, oversees tourism but has no direct experience of the industry.<br /><br />Over on the opposition benches, however, things are much better with a shadow DCMS minister in the shape of Tobias Ellwood, whose constituency is in the tourism hotspot of Bournemouth. The Conservatives have indicated Ellwood would be a fully-fledged tourism minister if they win the election, which will clearly be a fillip for the industry.<br /><br />For now, small improvements could come from a series of political working groups focused on the tourism aspects of the 2012 Olympics, the industry&rsquo;s skills gap and the impact of tax and regulation on tourism. These groups met again earlier this week.<br /><br />For an average family of four arriving on these shores the tax charge runs to &pound;520 in air passenger duty. That&rsquo;s on top of the UK visa fees. Such charges present a barrier for visitors from many countries considering a holiday in the UK.<br /><br />While gradual changes to Whitehall&rsquo;s attitude to tourism proceed at a snail&rsquo;s pace, the danger is that not enough is done soon enough to boost Britain&rsquo;s tourism economy ahead of the 2012 games. And that represents a potential missed opportunity of Olympian proportions.