UK ministers are failing to support business tourism

DAVID Cameron recently said that, in the global battle to win jobs and contracts, he believes in leading from the front. It’s fighting talk but, when it comes to winning work for our major export businesses, Cameron and his ministerial troops are regularly absent without leave.

Tourism, and that includes business tourism, is a vital export business and brought £125bn into the UK last year. The business of bringing people to Britain to meet, trade and relax creates more jobs and contributes more to the economy than agriculture. So it is time tourism gained the attention and recognition that agriculture has had for decades.

Getting ministerial support for an event or a proposal is like pulling teeth. ExCeL London recently secured a major medical conference, worth £130m to the UK economy, but we’ll struggle to persuade a minister to poke his head round the door when our guests arrive.

We have a great city in London which we sell to the world as a vibrant cosmopolitan venue for meeting, working and investing. But colleagues putting together a bid for an international conference will have to beg for a junior ministerial aide to type out a supportive quote or get their boss to turn up for a five minute appearance at a launch. In Paris, ministers host gala receptions at the Louvre, fast track visitors through immigration control at the airport and lay on dedicated transport to whisk people to their venues.

I’m not calling for subsidies. All we need is recognition for our sector, and the investment of a little more ministerial time and attention to unlocking the bureaucratic barriers that stand in our way.

Over-zealous visa regulations are blocking some of the biggest spending potential tourists, currently the Chinese, from reaching our shores. The French and German authorities have spotted this and acted quickly to change their rules. The British government needs to get a move on or it risks missing a massive share of an emerging market.

Business tourism is the gift that keeps on giving. When business people visit the UK to work, they are far more likely to return with their families to spend more money. We don’t only need to fly our products around the world to restore our nation’s balance of payments. We also need to be a little more welcoming and hospitable when the world flies in to visit us.

Britain is good at hosting events. The Olympics and Paralympics showed that we can lead the world, and my own business was proud to be part of that success. We contributed £1.8bn to the London economy last year and employment for thousands. But the government needs to wake up and smell the complementary coffee we serve while creating wealth and jobs for Britain.

David Cameron talks about flying to Africa, Indonesia, the Gulf and China in the battle for British jobs. But he mustn’t forget the vital work of promoting London as a great place to do business. It would be nice if the government would bundle ministers out of Whitehall, and onto the front-line in the global battle to win jobs.

Kevin Murphy is chief executive of ExCeL London.