Prime Minister Tony Blair came under renewed fire this week for allowing Britain's tourist deficit to rocket fourfold during his time in office.
The Lib Dem shadow secretary for culture, media and sport, Don Foster, accused Blair's Government of a complacency that has let the gap between how much Brits spend abroad and how much tourists spend in this country widen dangerously during the past nine years.
"We need much greater urgency and ambition from the Government," said Foster. "Tourism is crucial to our economy, but today's figures show the UK's tourism deficit has worsened every year since 1997."
The difference in tourist spending in the UK and what UK residents spend abroad has grown from £4.6b in 1997 to £17.9b in 2005.
Foster also accused Blair of making an "Olympian blunder" by effectively downgrading tourism targets in his Tourism 2012 Charter, announced in November last year.
Originally, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell set a target for tourism revenue to hit £100b by 2010. But the Government's latest charter allows the date to slide two years to 2012.
VisitBritain defended the charter, however, saying it was intended to start a consultation process between itself and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
A spokeswoman for the DCMS also defended the figures, saying: "Many factors influence the tourism ‘balance of payments' deficit, not least rising prosperity and cheaper air travel. The UK's experience is by no means unique - in Germany the deficit is £27b.
"In March, we'll be launching a consultation to underpin our Olympic Strategy. This will be the biggest consultation the industry has ever seen and will result in clear and ambitious targets."
By James Garner
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