By Nigel Packer
Hoteliers and tourism chiefs are deeply concerned over strong rumours that the Government plans to scrap the English Tourist Board (ETB).
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is remaining tight-lipped on the subject, saying only that a wide range of cost-cutting measures are being considered at various organisations.
But ETB representatives have failed to obtain any assurances during meetings with department heads, and the board now believes proposals for abolition will be put forward in the next few weeks by Culture Secretary Chris Smith.
"We are very concerned," said an ETB representative. "It is only recently that we launched our Action 2000 scheme with full backing from the Government, and the ETB did appear to be in its strongest position for a decade."
The ETB is receiving £9.7m from the Government in 1998/9, compared with £18.3m for Scotland, £14.6m for Wales and £13.5m for Northern Ireland - all of which will retain their tourist boards under the proposals, it is believed.
The ETB representative said any savings would be "minimal", because many of its services would have to be provided from elsewhere.
"Also, around half our grant goes to regional tourist boards. What will happen to them?"
Richard Ball, managing director of Calcot Manor in Gloucestershire, said he was "incredulous" at the rumours of abolition.
"I'm appalled at the lack of priority the Government appears to be giving tourism," he said.
David White, proprietor of the Greenway hotel in Cheltenham, said abolition would be "a retrograde step - not that I don't think there needs to be some overhaul of the ETB and regional boards".