As the General Election draws near, Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, talks passionately to Janet Harmer about the support he hopes the new Government will provide the tourism industry in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
Caterer and Hotelkeeper How would you define the key role of VisitBritain?
Christopher Rodrigues VisitBritain is Britain's national tourism agency, responsible for marketing Britain overseas. We currently have a four-point strategy. First, we aim to encourage travellers from overseas to visit and explore Britain. Second, we deliver a global network in 35 countries to support tourism promotion overseas. Third, we champion tourism and engage industry and Government in support of its growth. And finally, we are working towards maximising the tourism legacy benefits of the 2012 Olympic and Paraylmpic Games.
Caterer What do you regard as the key attributes of Britain when promoting the country abroad?
CR The timelessness of our countryside and our architectural heritage; the dynamism and breadth of our cultural offerings and the diversity and character of our nations and regions and the people who live in them.
Caterer Can you sum up British tourism in 2009?
CR It was a good year - in parts. Domestic tourism was up by more than 18% compared with the previous year, reflecting the weakness of sterling. International leisure travel was up by 3%, which was better than competitor nations. Everyone in the country worked hard to make us a more attractive travel destination, cost-wise. For instance, it was 40% cheaper for a New Zealander to travel to Britain in 2009, compared with 2008. This was as a result of the weak pound, competitive hotel rates and cheaper airline seats. However, business travel was down by 25%, which was very much in line with the rest of the world. So, domestic and leisure travel was good, but business travel was bad.
Caterer Do you stand by your comments in an interview with The Independent in early 2009 that British hotels and restaurants offer "poor value" and "grumpy staff"?
CR Those comments were taken out of context, but I truly believe that in a recession those people who focus on delivering superior quality will ride it out better than others. I was in Grasmere a couple of weeks ago and was thrilled to see the huge investment that has taken place in the town and accommodation infrastructure in recent years. A great deal of work has been done to upgrade British hotels and, with the weaker pound, this helps immensely in offering value for money to overseas visitors.
Caterer The Backing UK Tourism: Destination Recovery report suggested that responsibility for tourism should be moved from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS). What are your views?
CR It actually doesn't matter which department looks after tourism as the industry is like a horizontal skewer that goes through many government departments including the DCMS, DBIS, Department for Works & Pensions, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. What is important is that whoever is responsible for tourism cares about this major British industry and is empowered to champion it. Margaret Hodge (minister of state at the DCMS) and Barbara Follett (parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Communities & Local Government) are currently working very hard on achieving this and I hope this will continue. It is vital that tourism policy issues are considered before policy is made, not as an afterthought.
Caterer As we approach a General Election in the next few months, what do you hope to see in the manifestos of the main political parties regarding tourism?
CR The most important thing is a recognition that tourism is a major industry which earns foreign exchange and employs a lot of people. Supporting the industry will go some considerable way towards helping the country out of recession. In particular, there are four areas where a new Government can have a positive impact on the industry - jobs, competitiveness, sustainability and using the Olympics to showcase Britain.
Caterer How can the new Government help with employment in the industry?
CR The tourism industry currently employs 1.4 million people directly and 1.4 million people indirectly. We believe it is a reasonable goal to create 100,000 new jobs in the industry in the next two to three years, particularly if the exchange rate remains as it currently is as it makes Britain a very attractive place to visit.
Caterer How can competitiveness help the tourism industry?
CR If you look at tourism in respect to the global competition, there is much that can be done to improve it. For instance, the visa application process for visitors from abroad could be made a lot easier and more engaging. It should not just be a security process, but also a means of improving the value of a trip by offering discounted Oyster cards or free bus passes with the cost of a visa. A good transport infrastructure is key to being competitive and airport departure taxes need to be looked at as they are higher here than in most other nations, so cannot be said to be competitive.
Caterer How can the new Government help improve the sustainability of the tourism industry?
CR Tourism is making progress on its green credentials, but it can do more. The Government can help by offering investment incentives which support national sustainability goals. For example, more investment should be going into high-speed rail links, which is a very carbon-friendly means of transport, between airports and major destinations. Switzerland and France have been doing this very successfully for many years.
Caterer How can the new Government support VisitBritain in the lead-up to the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012?
CR It is vital to recognise that the Olympics, along with other major events such as the Ryder Cup in Wales later this year and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, can be a catalyst to build people's desire to travel to Britain. But we have no specific budget to fuel that catalyst. Of course, we will be using the Olympics as a major theme in promoting Britain within existing budgets, but so much more could be done with additional money - as was shown in the case of the Olympics in Sydney and the increased number of visitors that flocked to Australia. VisitBritain's budget for April 2010 to March 2011 is £30m. An additional £20m in the run-up to the Olympics would help us cover a whole lot of bases.
Caterer What are some of the additional marketing activities that VisitBritain would like to undertake around the Olympics?
CR The Olympics will provide a worldwide audience of five billion people. We want to be able to tell them the story of Britain and this needs to be done through TV and film coverage and we are not short of ideas. We would love to get broadcasters from around the world to run a season of British films - such as Elizabeth and Braveheart - and we are working with the British Film Institute on this, but there is a lack of money. We are talking to NBC in the USA about broadcasting not just from the Olympics, but from other areas around Britain which showcase the historical and cultural, as well as the dynamic and modern aspects of the country. The Japanese are fascinated by gardens and so there would be an opportunity for them to visit Northumberland while they are in the country for the Olympics to cover what is a great garden story at Alnwick Castle. We hope the Olympic torch will pass through many of the iconic locations in Britain which will encourage foreign broadcasters to make programmes about different parts of the country. The Canadians are taking 5,000 journalists to Vancouver next month, during the Winter Olympics, to enable them to sample the country. We want to do the same and be able to bring as many people as possible to Britain during 2012 to show the world what the country has to offer as a tourist destination. We have no shortage of ideas for what is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but we lack funding.
Caterer You are a supporter of partnership funding when it comes to marketing Britain, explain how this works.
CR We had several opportunities last year for partnership funding from international airlines that were willing to put forward an equal amount of money with us for marketing, but frustratingly we were unable to match all the money that was available. So, in effect, we had foreigners who were prepared to pay us to promote our tourism industry. We believe that through partnership funding there would be an extra £12-20m available for marketing Britain, which would cost us only £6-10m. We want the next Government to understand about the benefits of partnership funding, which would help to inspire people to visit Britain in the run-up to the Olympics.
Caterer What is the overall message you would like to give to the Government upon being elected to power?
CR Primarily, we want to say that with the huge asset of the Olympics, we have a fantastic opportunity to grow the tourism industry and at the same time increase employment. The new Government needs to focus on creating more jobs within a truly competitive, sustainable industry. Tourism is a huge opportunity for boosting the British economy as a whole, it is not just about people sitting on a beach with a pina colada.
UK TOURISM - THE KEY FACTS
- Delivers £114b (8.2% of UK GDP), made up of £66b from domestic visitors, with international visitors contributing £20b and industry spending £28b.
- Supports 2.7 million jobs (50% direct and 50% indirect).
- Supports more than 200,000 small and medium enterprises.
- Generates around £3.5b overseas PR for Britain.
- The top three markets by volume in 2008 were France, providing 3,636,000 visitors (11.4% of the total) , the Irish Republic (3,070,000 or 9.6%) and the USA (2,950,000 or 9.3%).
- The top three markets by value are the USA, with US visitors spending £2,223m (13.6% of the total) in 2008, Germany (£1,125m or 6.9%) and France (£1,053 or 6.5%).
- The fastest-growing markets between 2000 and 2008 were Poland (visitor numbers increasing by 743%), the Czech Republic (up by 195%), Hungary (up by 131%), Norway (up by 118%) and India (up by 110%).
- Average in-country spending by long-haul visitors is £700 per person for an average stay of eight days.
- In 2008 Britain earned the seventh-largest income in the world from tourism, behind the USA, Spain, France, Italy, China and Germany.