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Volume 475: debated on Monday 12 May 2008

In 2007, the deficit was £19.4 billion, reflecting the fact that greater prosperity and cheaper air fares mean that British people want to travel. However, record numbers of visitors came here from abroad in the past three years, and I am working hard with the industry to make sure that our tourism offer gets ever better.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Tourism is a very important industry for my constituency, with 1.9 million visitors and £100 million of spend. However, our market share in terms of visitors and spend has fallen consistently over the past 10 years. I know that under this Labour Government people are desperate to leave the country, even if it is just for a two-week holiday, but what is the Minister going to do to arrest that decline?

First, I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is going to tell his family or his constituents’ families that they should not take holidays abroad. That sounds a bit odd. In a free society, people will choose to take holidays, particularly with cheaper air fares and greater wealth and prosperity. I think that what the future holds for what is a very strong tourism industry lies in domestic tourism—where we spend our holidays. Eighty per cent. of the money earned through the tourism industry comes from domestic tourism. With increasing prosperity, it may be that we take a couple of breaks a year. We are aiming to get more and more people to take some, if not all of their breaks in many of the wonderful resorts and locations that we have in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and across the whole of England. Tourism has grown year on year. The most recent figures that I have available indicate that inbound tourism grew by 5 per cent. in terms of numbers and 6 per cent. in terms of income. That shows that we are being successful.

We have a great product in the United Kingdom, particularly with the constant sunshine that we enjoy here—over the past couple of days, at least. Part of the problem, though, is that the first thing that people see when they come into this country from abroad and when they leave is the airport. In too many cases, they spend more time at Heathrow, for instance, than they would at any visitor attraction, so that they should send their postcards from the airport and take a photograph of their luggage as an enduring memory of what it used to look like. What can the Minister do to ensure that when people visit the UK they can come through Heathrow without all the hassles that have befallen them recently?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there have been a few problems at Heathrow airport in recent weeks, but if we look at what happened to St. Pancras station and the channel tunnel rail link, we see that the welcome into the United Kingdom there has vastly improved. I hope that the teething troubles that we are experiencing with terminal 5 can be overcome by the airlines and by BAA. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the welcome we give to our visitors, and the first feel that they get of coming to Britain—the speed of going through the airport and the sort of service they get from personnel there—are hugely important. That is why, together with VisitBritain, we are pursuing a whole set of initiatives and actions to ensure that we improve that welcome.

Would not one of the simplest, cheapest and easiest ways of massively increasing the amount of tourism product in this country be to move to an extra hour in summer time? People would be around in the evening, spending their money, instead of being asleep for an hour whilst there is sunshine in the morning.

That issue is raised by some of the representative organisations in the tourism industry from time to time. As the hon. Gentleman will accept, it is a contentious issue. I have asked for better evidence on things such as safety for families or a reduction in road accidents and whether there is any evidence that it supports tourism. Portugal was the last country to try that experiment and there was very little evidence that it made any difference to tourism income. I have an open mind on the matter, however, and I have asked the various authorities to provide me with any evidence that they have.

Will the Minister reaffirm her commitment to tourism and to our heritage by ensuring that the visitor facilities at Stonehenge are upgraded as soon as possible, as well as the roads? Can she bring us up to date and assure us that the Department for Transport is working as hard as English Heritage to resolve this crisis, which has been described as a national disgrace?

The hon. Gentleman will know, from his conversations with me in the Chamber and informally, that I am working extremely hard with my colleagues in the Department for Transport and all of those who have a role to play, such as English Heritage, the National Trust and the various local and regional authorities, to ensure that we achieve better facilities for what is an iconic world heritage site. That process will involve the road infrastructure and the improvement of visitor facilities. I have given the hon. Gentleman a commitment to do everything in my power to ensure that by 2012, we have first-class facilities that will help us enjoy this first-class visitor site.