Last week I took a taxi across London. The cabbie, a talkative sort, had just returned from a holiday in the Lake District. What stuck in his mind was neither the scenery, nor the weather - which hadn't been too good - but the fact that the area was so quiet. It was, as he put it, half-dead.
As the conversation progressed it emerged that earlier that day this business barometer had picked up two German tourists about to return home after a five-day break in London. They had been staying in central London at a cost of £120 for a double room, not unreasonable for the location. But they were outraged by the cost of breakfast, an extra £15 each. They had enjoyed London, but would not be coming back, they said. It simply wasn't value for money.
Two swallows may not make a summer, but these tales are not apocryphal. They point to two things. First, the tourists are just not there; and second, those that do come are leaving with the impression that the UK is expensive and does not represent value for money.
Our feature on Blackpool confirms the overall picture. Blackpool is experiencing its worst season ever with some operators reporting trade down by as much as 20% on previous years.
Of course, it's easy to find reasons why this is happening. A strong pound, making it more attractive to go abroad, as well as the perennial saga of the weather both have taken their toll on UK tourism.
But it's also easy to overlook a root cause of the problem, namely that many operators have fallen into the trap of short-termism, or "make as much as you can while the going's good, and never mind the future".
This is a dangerous strategy, one which could have a catastrophic long-term effect on overseas tourists. Like the two German visitors, they could leave with negative impressions, never to return.
For indigenous tourists value is also an issue, but in a slightly different way. It's not that people don't want to holiday in the UK. Our NOP research showed a definite willingness on the part of UK adults to take their holidays in this country (Caterer, 23 July, page 60).
But this group is becoming increasingly aware of what's available, and more focused on how to spend the leisure pound. To retain them the UK industry will have to offer something over and above accommodation and food.
Center Parcs and Oasis have started a trend in the right direction, offering holidays where a good time does not have to be linked to sunshine hours. And the Wales Tourist Board, recognising the bucket-and-spade holiday as obsolete, is repositioning the principality as a short-break and activity destination.
Of course, it may just be a blip, and next year could be a lot better. But we should bear in mind the lessons of the past. And if you don't want to know, take the Tube the next time you're in London.
Caterer & Hotelkeeper