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Tourist Industry: Booking Cancellations

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 11 June 1986

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many tourists they estimate to have cancelled their visits to this country as a result of the bombing of Libya, what the economic loss will be and what help they are offering to the British tourist industry.

My Lords, precise details of the number of cancellations by prospective tourists, since the attack on Libya, are not available. At worst, the tourist industry had estimated that the number of visitors from the United States of America could be down as much as 15 per cent. this year, representing a drop in tourist spending of some 3 per cent.

Nevertheless, there are signs of an early upturn in business. The Director-General of the British Tourist Authority, who recently returned from the United States, has said that forward bookings are now "back on the right track" and that tourist inquiries of BTA offices are returning to their former levels. I can also assure your Lordships that the Government are taking all possible steps to convey the message to prospective visitors that Britain is a very safe and enjoyable destination.

My Lords, is it not ironic that an action which was described by the British and American Governments as making the world a safer place to live in has had as its first impact a sense of fear so far as American tourists are concerned? Although I realise that the Minister cannot give precise numbers, is it not the case that the tourist industry itself estimates that 30 per cent. of the American tourists expected will not come this year, which represents 30 per cent. of a quarter of all the tourists expected in Britain?

No, my Lords. I must leave the sense of irony to the noble Lord; I do not share it. I should have thought that making the world safe from terrorists was the best possible way to lay the foundation for a good international tourist business. But I must tell your Lordships that it appears that the temporary drop in the number of American tourists came primarily from those who were coming on group tours. The vast majority of American tourists coming under their own resources continue to come. Indeed, if I may quote from the Director-General of the British Tourist Authority, who is just about to retire after 40 years in the tourism business, he said:

"Consumer inquiries at BTA's five offices in the United States are returning to former levels, with the New York office alone reporting in excess of 500 inquiries a day during the past week"—
and that was last week. He went on to say:
"If there is one thing I have learned in my 40 years of promoting travel to Britain, it is never to underestimate the power of recovery of the American travel market."

My Lords, is the noble Lord not puzzled by the tenor of this Question and the inference in it? Surely it is the kidnapping and murder of American citizens, and the hijackings of American aircraft, that may have dissuaded some Americans from crossing the Atlantic. And is it not a fact that many American tourists, when they cross the Atlantic, want to visit not merely this country but other European countries? Might it not be the fact that some European countries have not responded as strongly as this country which has dissuaded American tourists from coming?

My Lords, if I may make a confession to your Lordships' House, I have often felt some puzzlement in looking at the origin of some of the Questions from the noble Lord. But I must say that we should not forget that, also, before whatever action was taken against Libya, an American family, including an 18 month-old baby, was blown out of an American plane by terrorist action. What we have to do is work together in a concerted effort to reduce the level of terrorism and to make this a world safe to travel in.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that we must look at all possible sources for the reluctance of some Americans to visit us? May I call his attention to a remark made to me by an American who frequently visits this country and has done so over many years? What depresses him is what he finds for the first time this year—concerted anti-American propaganda, of which we have had some very marked examples in Questions in your Lordships' House in recent months?

My Lords, I should make it very clear that we welcome visitors from all countries to our shores. We welcome those who speak our language as well as those who do not. Our overriding desire is to ensure that those who come to our shores wish to come here again.

My Lords, will the Secretary of State and the House accept my apology for late entry? I came in when the noble Lord was in fact speaking. Has he had an opportunity which I have missed, to congratulate British Airways on its massive initiative in having recouped a very great deal of the lost traffic by a splendid and professional appeal to the United States, to its people and to their interest in a little free travel? If he has the opportunity to do that now in the discussion here, could he also end it on the very positive note that there are a great many American people already appearing here and that the trade, the people of Great Britain and everyone in this House welcome their presence?

My Lords, I am very glad to hear what the noble Lord has said.

My Lords, is this not a strange Question? What is it trying to say? It seems to me that it is saying, "Never stand up to a bully in case you get hurt."

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some Canadians are alleged to have cancelled coming to Europe for fear of Sikh terrorists blowing up Air India planes, and that the Libyan terrorists are not the only ones in this world?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord. That surely demonstrates, once more, that an essential part of the policy of all civilised nations must be to eliminate terrorism, whence-ever it comes. Just to assure all your Lordships, may I say that for the first three months of this year, which are the only months for which we have yet published figures, the number of visits increased by 10 per cent. to 2·6 million and that visits from North America increased by 15 per cent., while spending was constant and increasing. I suspect that we shall show a drop, particularly from North America, in April and May, but I have no doubt that with many events to come we shall see a resumption of the sustained growth of this economy.

My Lords, will the noble Lord not agree that the question of terrorism may have been only a single contributory factor in the particular decisions that have been taken and that probably the pound-dollar relationship had more impact on the tourist figures? We hope that the so-called cancellations may be only postponements of decisions to visit the United Kingdom. I think they are and that many Americans may be visiting over a number of years and can easily postpone a visit and come next year.

Yes, my Lords, as well as the pound-dollar relationship, there was the dollar-deutschemark relationship and the dollar-French franc relationship. The American dollar dropped in purchasing power which initially must have affected some decisions. But we have seen in the past six months a drop in the price of oil. We are now beginning to experience a considerable reduction in the cost of transatlantic fares and I have no doubt that all these things will level out.

My Lords, while I agree with much that the noble Lord has said, may I ask him to beware of falling into the trap of rewriting history? Is it not the case that the cancellations became apparent, not after the hijackings and assassinations which he has mentioned, but after the attack on Libya?

No, my Lords; it is not for me to say what is in the mind of Americans. But I suspect that it had a great deal to do with the singling out of Americans wherever they were overseas.

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister agree—I think he is bound to do so—that all civilised people and all civilised nations must be totally and absolutely opposed to any form of terrorism and to any financiers of terrorists? Will he not further agree—and perhaps the United States acknowledges this in that the President of the United States has agreed to the extradition of IRA terrorists, who are financed by organisations in the United States—that we have behaved in an exemplary manner? The argument really is about this: there can be right ways, tough ways and hard ways, and there can also be wrong ways and dangerous ways, of dealing with appalling terrorists.

My Lords, that is a long way from the Question, which is specifically about Libya. But I will agree that we must deal with terrorism in the best way possible. The best way is often a firm way, but we must deal with it.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that cancellations may well have something to do with our lousy weather?

My Lords, this morning I had the great distinction and pleasure of taking the Secretary General of the People's Republic of China, Hu Yaobang, down the River Thames. I regret to inform all in your Lordships' House that it did not stop raining. That did not help the tourist industry.

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister recall that the Prime Minister herself went to the United States, spoke on television, and appealed to American tourists not to cancel their bookings, saying that Britain is a much safer place than New York? Was she not so concerned about the loss of revenue to the tourist industry that she went on breakfast television, noonday television and every other television network in the United States to make that appeal?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave an interview which was shown on American television and which I believe did a great deal towards reassuring American tourists. The wife of the President, Mrs. Nancy Reagan, announced that she was coming to London for the Royal Wedding. What we have seen and what the BTO is reporting now is a resumption of the former situation. I hope that the cancellations will just turn out to be an unhappy incident.

My Lords, is it not a peculiar form of priorities for the Prime Minister of this country to go on American television to appeal for the tourist industry when the Government have always said—and the noble Lord himself has constantly said—that the Government cannot intervene with regard to manufacturing industry? Considering that it requires a 3 per cent. increase in service industries to make up a 1 per cent. reduction in manufacturing industry, is it not a peculiar set of Government priorities that the Prime Minister should be heading the drive of the tourist industry—in other words, the service industries—but removing herself and the Government from any intervention in the collapse of manufacturing industry?

My Lords, I expressed a sense of puzzlement at the motives behind the original Question. I must confess to be even more puzzled at this supplementary question. If my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is asked to give an interview to be shown on American television, what could be more natural than that she should say that this country is a safe place to be, and invite American tourists to come back? We need industry, we need the service sector, we need tourism—we need everything that creates wealth and promotes jobs.

My Lords, with regard to my noble friend's sense of puzzlement, is he not surprised that the noble Lord who asked the Question is unable to link courage and fear? Is he not aware, as I am sure he is, that any time I have had to do anything particularly courageous, I have felt very considerable fear up to the point of being physically affected? If one is courageous is not the ultimate result that one's friends back one considerably more because of one's courage?

My Lords, we are now straying a very long way indeed from the Question. I think that we should let it go at that.