Britain's hoteliers have not been getting a good press lately. I sympathise with those hardworking, highly professional proprietors and managers who feel outraged by headlines which lay much, if not all, of the blame for our huge tourism deficit at the door of poor value-for-money offered by our hotels and guesthouses.
It was the launch of heritage secretary Stephen Dorrell's tourism document, Competing with the Best, that sparked the debate. But since this is the first time in a long while that the tourism industry has had the focused attention of Government, it is important that emotion does not overshadow a sensible appraisal of the issues.
It is a fact, repeatedly borne out by research, that a significant proportion of our leisure and business tourists are not satisfied with the accommodation they get for the price paid. Any of us who often stay away from home will know that bad experiences do happen.
Like most countries, we have good and bad places to stay. What pleases me is that the tourist boards are to play a more influential role in steering visitors towards accommodation that will satisfy visitors' needs.
The heritage secretary is right to focus initially on accommodation standards. Serviced accommodation is, for many markets, the largest single financial component in a purchase that always represents a significant investment.
I agree with his conclusions that a strengthened, more comprehensive and widely understood accommodation inspection scheme would raise standards. Also critical are ways to aid ease of booking and enable our many independent, small establishments to signal spare availability at prices with market appeal. These are central recommendations in Mr Dorrell's report and they are good ones.
Many of our hotels and guesthouses have no choice but to close for too many months of the year. Even when open, well over half of available beds are never slept in. In 1994, average bed occupancy for England as a whole was a mere 43%. In parts of the country and for some hotel sectors, occupancies fall well below this figure.
But it is simply not good enough to say that we cannot hope for more because of the weather. Our climate has not changed in the past 25 years but Britain's share of tourism has steadily declined. Of holidays lasting four nights or more taken by UK citizens, only 54% are now Britain-based compared with 90% in 1960 and nearly 70% just 10 years ago.
Better occupancy is one in a series of keys that will help open the door to a more competitive and strengthened industry. As in any other industry, if we operate way below our productive capacity, we will not be successful.
Work is under way to improve the retail and reservations capability of many of the tourist information centres and to provide economic access, especially for smaller independents, to co-ordinated reservations and late availability booking systems.
These two measures alone will help to improve occupancies and enable hoteliers to charge a range of more competitive prices. Those who fail to offer higher standards for the price, through mismanagement or lack of interest, will be deprived of some of the opportunity they have to disappoint their customers. The pressure is on to improve or leave the field to those who care more about what they offer.
It is a shame, I think, that these fundamental stepping stones in Mr Dorrell's agenda have been misinterpreted by some as simply "rampant consumerism". They are not intended as such. If we succeed in bringing about the measures he advocates, we will create more business as well as higher standards.
But Mr Dorrell must not stop there. The tourist boards will continue to argue the case for lower VAT and restraint in the new departure tax, both of which disadvantage hoteliers and tourism.
As Caterer pointed out in its editorial two weeks ago, promotional funding for the English Tourist Board remains pitifully low. The promotional budget of the Thomson Travel Group alone is higher than board's entire grant in aid.
While there has been welcome additional funding for the overseas promotion of London, it is the decline in the domestic market appeal of London and of much of the rest of Britain that has been at the heart of our problems.
Few hoteliers mind whether the bodies in their beds or the boozers in their bars come from Britain, Bombay or Belgium. We must appeal to all the major market places, including Britain, to secure a better future.