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UK Tourism after the Paris Attacks

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered tourism in the UK after the Paris attacks.

I am very grateful for this chance to raise an issue of huge importance to my constituency and the United Kingdom. I am delighted that my good friend the Minister will respond to the debate. Everyone in the House will wish her and her family well and all peace and happiness for the future. Her forthcoming break from the political arena will be sad for the rest of us, but an absolute joy for her. I know, because I have three children, that it will also be an awful lot of hard work. If she ever fancies a change or a breath of fresh air, I can think of no better thing for her to do than to come down to Bridgwater and West Somerset and enjoy the delights of Exmoor—it is very good for young lungs.

Encouraging tourism is what this short debate is about. The industry is vital to the UK; tourism is growing faster than any other sector in the country. It employs well over 3 million people and, according to the latest figures, it earns £130 billion a year. That is 9% of the UK’s GDP. It is possible that 10 years from now, tourism will be bringing in £300 billion-worth of dollars, euros and yen every year. However, I emphasise the word “possible”. British tourism has massively upped its game in recent times. I can speak only for Somerset, but I know that down there we offer the best these days. However, there are still unpredictable risks that can undermine consumer confidence and pull the plug on prosperity overnight, which is why the appalling carnage in Paris just over three weeks ago is very relevant to the debate.

By coincidence, I spent the weekend and a lot of last week in Paris as a delegate to the international climate change conference. That long planned event involving the leaders of 147 countries was always going to be a security headache. What happened in the city on the grim night of 13 November dramatically altered the landscape. It is a massive tribute to French resilience that the climate change conference went ahead and will, I think, achieve so much.

By contrast, France has suffered badly in the aftermath of the ghastly terrorist attacks. As you know, Mr Owen, Paris is a wonderful city, but terrorism has wreaked havoc on its tourist trade. It is estimated that cancelled bookings and reduced visitor numbers have already cost the French economy about £1.5 billion. When Brussels was locked down while the police searched for the Paris terrorists, it cost that city a hefty £35 million a day in lost trade.

Fear, as we know, can be a cruel weapon. It respects no laws and undermines confidence—and, as we have seen here, it feeds on itself. Fear can all too easily stop tourists in their tracks. That is perfectly understandable: no one will want to put themselves or their family at risk when they embark on a vacation anywhere in the world. I fully appreciate that the remedy for fear is extremely hard, if not impossible, to find and is well beyond the power of any ministerial brief. We cannot expel it. We cannot legislate against it, and we cannot at the moment control it. However, we can perhaps do a little more to persuade the wider audience of potential visitors that, whatever they may have heard or read about the risks of terrorism, Britain remains open for business.

I have some relevant experience of the need to counter fear. Two years ago, a large part of my constituency began to sink under the most appalling floods for 200 years—given the events of recent days, I send my condolences to our friends in the north. The damage was horrendous. The human toll was also high: many people were forced to abandon their homes as the waters rose. It was shocking and desperately sad, so I greatly sympathise with those in Cumbria who have been similarly affected. Flooding on that scale is a nightmare. It has taken two years for those parts of Somerset to recover. It took an enormous push from Somerset’s tourism industry to persuade visitors to stay with us or book to return.

The trouble with fear is that it is easily exaggerated. People saw aerial photographs of flooded homes and assumed that the whole county was underwater. In fact, if one drove down the M5, one would hardly notice anything. Most people were going to work, going to school and generally getting on with their lives. There was food in the shops and a welcome at the local pub. Somerset did not grind to a halt, and neither will Cumbria. However, we all have to work extremely hard to get that message across.

I admit that I was slightly apprehensive when travelling to Paris the other day. Like everyone else, I had been glued to the news and shocked by what I saw. To my relief, Paris was operating normally. There were more police on the streets, obviously, but the buzzing stylish city was there; its heart was beating strongly. Parisians are already learning how to come to terms with what happened, as we did some years ago. For potential visitors, that process takes much longer.

We all know that terrorism never has respected and never will respect national boundaries. America has just suffered the San Bernardino shootings, inspired by the same twisted beliefs as were behind the Paris attacks. There was also the knife attacker on the London tube a few days ago. Those events remind us all of the risks, but the bigger the atrocity, the greater the impact on tourism—that is now a genuine danger. It would be surprising if the Paris massacre had no adverse effect on American tourists in the future. I would hazard a guess that if someone who lives in Minnesota is thinking about “seeing Europe”, as Americans do, they might well pick Rome, London, Venice or Berlin, but they will probably not pick Paris at the moment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate on a very important topic. Does he agree that the data and evidence on the time taken to recover from major terrorist attacks and events such as those that he mentioned in his constituency vary—there is some inconsistency? Data on the London attacks in 2005 suggest that London recovered very quickly; in fact, there was an increase in tourist numbers in 2006. Similarly, after the Madrid bombings, domestic and international tourism recovered quite quickly. Unfortunately, I am hearing evidence from UKinbound and others that—

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) makes a very good point and his statistics are absolutely right. The problem is that we can never be complacent. Having been an MP for 15 years and dealt with flooding and other problems in my constituency, I know well what the effects can be. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to mention the attacks in London some years ago. They did affect the city; there was no way to get around that. However, we recovered very quickly. There was good leadership from the centre. That rippled out across London and the United Kingdom, and we were able to recover to the position where we were before. But it is right to say that that took time.

The problem with all this is that if we are complacent, we will miss the chance. We are in the middle of the Christmas period. In tourist terms—dare I say it?—spring and summer are already here, because holidays are being sold, so we must take this issue seriously. That is why it is timely that the Minister is here to respond to the debate and explain where we are going on this issue for the future. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire is here and am very grateful for his input.

What should we do to protect our vital flow of visitors? Of course, there is a powerful domestic message for British holidaymakers who might be thinking of booking a foreign summer break. We should tell them to consider Britain first, to discover what we have at home and to spend—dare I say it?—pounds, not euros. A bit of national spirit would help us all.

I am pretty sure that the Minister will want to draw attention to the new Discover England fund, announced by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn statement. That is a lot of money—£40 million—and it will be deliberately targeted to back up the Government’s new five-point plan for tourism. Everyone I have spoken to in tourism is optimistic about the generous injection of money and the basic ideals of the tourism plan. If there is any anxiety, it is more about the difficulty of enabling a large and diverse industry to speak with one voice, which I think is probably what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire was talking about.

I notice, for example, that a collaborative body called the Tourism Industry Council has been created to improve the relationship between the industry and Government. That has to be welcome; it is a good idea, but I did not realise quite how many people are involved. There appear to be—I know that the Minister will correct me immediately if this is wrong—25 different tourist organisations represented. I say gently to the Minister that that is bigger than the Prime Minister’s Cabinet; the cost in coffee and biscuits alone must be positively frightening. So many strange-sounding organisations are involved, and the general public are probably not even aware that half of them exist.

We have probably all heard of VisitBritain and VisitEngland, the two big outfits that help to promote all our brands. I did not know, however, that there was a British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions —I trust that that has nothing to do with Piers Morgan—nor was I familiar with the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, let alone the Tourism Society, which is not to be confused with the Tourism Alliance, UKinbound or even the British Hospitality Association.

There is an association for pretty well every different discipline. Bed and breakfast? Yes, they have one. Travel agents? They have another one. Pubs? Naturally; they are a British institution. Those organisations are all different, with different memberships, different ideas and —guess what?—different leaders. I had come across People First, a training body for the catering industry, but did you know, Mr Owen, that there is even a National Coastal Tourism Academy? We must sign up immediately.

London seems to have at least two seats on the Tourism Industry Council, held by a promotional group called London First and the Association of Professional Tourist Guides, most of whom work in London. The other specific regional representative appears to be West Dorset Leisure Holidays, a company that runs holiday parks in west Dorset. Fine—not a problem, but it is an awful lot of people. I am sure that West Dorset Leisure Holidays does its job well, but I have to wonder how it came to sit on the national Tourism Industry Council in the first place. West Dorset is a lovely place, but so is West Somerset, and for the same reasons. I am slightly biased, but I think that West Somerset is much lovelier.

My point is this. How on earth can we expect a council with so many members from so many different corners of the tourism trade to come up with coherent ideas? I know that it was the Government’s ambition to streamline the Tourism Industry Council; I accept that. I suspect that that is still a work in progress, and I am sure the Minister will wish to bring us up to date on it.

We are extremely fortunate in this country. We can offer a rich history, amazing scenery and an unrivalled welcome—and nowhere more so than in Somerset. It is no accident that tourists from faraway places have chosen to make the journey to this country in increasing numbers. Last year, 100,000 more visitors came to spend time with us. They dug deep into their pockets and helped the west country economy by more than £500,000. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me that the best way to ensure that our visitor numbers stay buoyant is to be buoyant. We need to talk up tourism and ensure that everyone everywhere gets the message that we are ready, willing and able—but much more importantly, we are open, so come over and enjoy.

We face a challenge over the Christmas period. The spending power of people in London—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire was right to mention London—is enormous. Any change at Christmas hits the retail trade, and also the autumn and spring trade. I am not a great shopper, but I have noticed that there are sales going on in London already. When that happens, it tends to mean that there are problems in the retail trade. I know that the Minister is aware of that, and I am sure that she will respond.

Before I call the Minister, I, too, wish her all the best for the future and give season’s greetings to you all.

Thank you for those kind words, Mr Owen. As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for raising this important subject and giving me a chance to update the House on the state of the tourism sector following the tragic events in Paris last month. I thank you, Mr Owen, and my hon. Friend for your kind wishes for the future.

Let me start by extending my deepest condolences to those affected by the attacks, and to the city of Paris. In France, a state of emergency has been confirmed for three months, and we understand how worrying that must be, not only for all those who live and work in the city, but for the Parisian tourism sector. We live in extremely dangerous times, but we in this country, and particularly in London, have faced such threats before. Our experience demonstrates the resilience of the nation, its workers and, of course, the tourism sector, when we stand together, as we must, to manage those threats.

After the tragedy of the London bombings 10 years ago, the capital’s attractions reported a 25% drop in visitor numbers. Just 12 months later, however, data showed that visitor numbers had bounced back and even outstripped the previous year’s figures. To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), I want to clarify the statistics and counsel caution. The statistics from UKinbound are anecdotal, and there will not be a proper survey until January. Although there has been a drop in the number of bookings from France, it was initially a consequence of the restrictions on travel, particularly for school groups—those restrictions were reciprocated, and our school groups did not visit France or Belgium—and those restrictions have now been lifted.

In the aftermath of 9/11, New York did not close to visitors; it reached out to them. I spoke to the Mayor of London yesterday, and he is confident—adamant, in fact—that the latest threats or incidents will not cause long-term damage to the tourism sector in our capital. As an avid shopper myself, let me reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset that sales do take place in the run-up to Christmas. That is nothing unusual, and it is in no way a response to recent events.

Confidence in safety and security measures is key, but so are the spirit and determination of our tourism industry to continue to attract and welcome the millions of visitors who are interested in exploring all that our country has to offer inside and outside London. We understand, however, that the growth of the sector will be reliant on our continued vigilance in the face of the threat of terrorism. As my hon. Friend will know from the Home Secretary’s statement to the House on 16 November, strenuous efforts are being made to keep the public and visitors safe. The police have increased their presence in certain areas and locations, and they will be intensifying their approach at events in big cities. New funding has been made available for the security and intelligence agencies to help them to respond better to the threat we all face from international terrorism.

We are not complacent, however. We know that travellers remain cautious, and that there have been jitters in some markets. VisitBritain, the body charged with promoting Britain as a destination overseas, has asked its overseas offices to monitor consumer and trade sentiment following the Paris attacks and to feed back weekly. It regularly updates the tourism industry emergency response group, a small group of industry and government players who plan for crises in the tourism sector and manage the sector’s response to major events such as the Paris attacks.

If I may deviate for a second, Mr Owen, I would like to say that it is not just against terrorism that our industry needs to show resilience and determination. The devastating floods over the weekend hit one of our most beautiful destinations. I want to reassure the House that we will work with VisitEngland and VisitBritain to ensure that tourism to that region is supported and continues to deliver economic benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset mentioned the flooding in his constituency. I hope that he, his local authority and all the tourism organisations in his area will share their experience with our friends in Cumbria.

We will continue to work here in the UK and with our overseas networks to communicate the steps that are being taken to keep the public and visitors safe, and to promote Britain as a great destination to visit. The UK has something to offer every type of traveller, and we want more people to visit and experience our way of life. As well as supporting jobs and growth, tourism is about connecting people and forging cultural links. The Government understand the vital role of tourism, which is why we launched a five-point plan for the sector during our first 100 days in power. That plan sets out the areas that we will prioritise to help the tourism sector to grow. Tourism is an engine of growth and a key industry, which supports almost one in 10 jobs in the UK.

When the Secretary of State and I were members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, a key issue that struck us was how the fragmentation of the sector was holding it back. We seek to address that by strengthening the co-ordination of activity in support of the sector across Government and industry. The new inter-ministerial group on tourism, which has already met, and the refreshed Tourism Industry Council are key to that.

I want to address my hon. Friend’s concerns about the Tourism Industry Council. As he has said, the council exists to improve the direct representation between Government and industry, to ensure that the voice of the industry can be heard in Whitehall clearly, and vice versa.

The diverse membership of the council is one of its strengths. It is the chair of the council’s role to guide those disparate individuals and opinions to productive conclusions. I assure my hon. Friend that specific members of the council will be called on to address various concerns and topics. We have no intention of wasting busy people’s time when agenda items do not need specialist expertise, so we will call on members’ time in a proportionate way. An open, transparent and two-way dialogue is critical to making progress.

Across the world, the international trade in tourism has grown spectacularly over recent decades, with international tourism arrivals passing 1 billion for the first time in 2012 and set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020. The Government are determined to capitalise on these opportunities. We cannot and will not allow our industry to take a backseat to international competitors.

In my hon. Friend’s constituency, attractions such as the Walled Gardens of Cannington have the potential to attract visitors from near and far. As Tourism Minister, I am determined to ensure that the panoramic views of Somerset that those gardens provide are not only well promoted, but accessible and fully integrated into the local economy. Indeed, the aim of the £40 million Discover England fund announced in the spending review is to make it easier for all of us to explore England’s hidden gems.

The benefits of tourism run much deeper than economics. By attracting tourists to the UK, we are able to showcase the best of our way of life—our national character as well as the splendour of our nation. Tourism enhances the quality of life of those who visit, as well as those who host. It is therefore having a central role in helping Paris to emerge from last month’s atrocities. We stand shoulder to shoulder with her, as she does with us.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.