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Tourism: VisitBritain

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether VisitBritain has the necessary financial resources to market the United Kingdom overseas effectively.

My Lords, the Government indeed believe that VisitBritain has the necessary financial resources to market the UK effectively overseas. That is demonstrated by the record number of inbound visitors to this country last year.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says and I am grateful to him, but does he appreciate that in our largest market, the United States, the very limited resources of VisitBritain mean that we are outspent by 25 countries, including Aruba, Peru and New Zealand? Ireland spends four times as much as we do in America.

My Lords, the noble Lord is accurate in his facts, but Britain spends more than other European countries. France, Germany and Italy spend less in the United States than we do. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; that is, in the large numbers of American visitors who come to this country.

My Lords, would it not be much more sensible to stop taxpayer funding for this venture altogether? The airline companies, the hotel companies and others in the tourism business are perfectly capable of paying for their own promotional activity. Why should the taxpayer be footing the bill at all?

My Lords, of course a great deal of expenditure is incurred by these private organisations to increase their business. That goes without saying. The Government have a role in co-ordinating activity, however, and recognising where there are opportunities. It would be remiss of the Government, when we are just a few short years away from the Olympic Games, to suggest that we have no interest at all in the huge tourism opportunities that may develop from that year. We recognise that tourism is a very important industry in this country, and a judicious amount of limited government funds is advisable.

My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that, although this party, the Labour Party, was the first to develop a tourism Act and so co-ordinate all those elements that are needed to promote inward tourism to the United Kingdom, VisitBritain and its predecessors have over a number of years lacked the financial resources with which increased numbers of visitors could be welcomed to these countries, providing jobs and occupations for our people?

My Lords, more money can always be spent. That goes without saying. Organisations with a track record of success have the right to make demands and to hope that their budgets will be increased, but all that has to be within a framework of national expenditure. Of course tourism will depend overwhelmingly on private provision, for transport, hotels, facilities and tourist attractions; it is an industry overwhelmingly in private hands to meet the demands of the market. The Government can, however, make judicious use of resources to help. As far as VisitBritain is concerned, we are talking about only £35 million; we are not talking about huge demands on the Exchequer.

My Lords, there are few things that could damage the efforts of VisitBritain more than a bed tax, as proposed by the interim report of the Lyons review. Britain already pays the second highest rate of taxes on its tourism industry. Will the Minister take this opportunity to scotch this idea, which would do great damage to the tourism industry in this country?

Tempted though I am, my Lords, I am not going to scotch a report that has not yet been published. The so-called “bed tax” was contained in an interim report as a possible idea. We are awaiting the report, which will be published in the next few weeks. It will then be timely for the Government to make a considered response.

My Lords, does the Minister think that the large number of immigrants might have anything to do with being stimulated by the VisitBritain campaign?

My Lords, my impression is rather that large numbers of immigrants are stimulated by the success of the British economy.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of evidence published this week by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University that shows the negative impact on tourism in this country of low-cost air fares and low-cost air travel, which is taking far more people out of the country than it is bringing in? Does he agree that, before too long, some effort will have to be made—for a number of reasons, including that one—to restrict the use of low-cost air travel?

My Lords, low-cost air fares certainly contribute to the tourist deficit, as it were, in terms of the number of Britons who travel abroad as opposed to the number of visitors to this country. The Government are addressing the whole issue of climate change, of which flights and aviation are an important aspect.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning the tourism deficit because, according to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, this Government have done great things in co-ordinating tourism effort and getting more people to visit this country. The fact is that our tourism earnings are in deficit and there is no co-ordination overseas among the various bodies that are trying to promote Britain. VisitBritain is one such body, but how many British organisations in the United States are now promoting tourists to come to Britain? It is not just one.

My Lords, it is not just one, but the noble Baroness is right that a large number of British tourists go abroad. That is a choice of British citizens and a reflection of their resources and earning power. But even in the year of the London bombings we increased incoming tourism by 8 per cent. That is a record of which all the organisations concerned, private and public, can be proud.