The future of VisitEngland's accommodation bookings system, EnglandNet, is in jeopardy after a complaint to the European Commission claimed it contravenes EU competition laws and wastes taxpayers' money.
The complaint, made by Helpful Holidays - a holiday cottage letting agency in Devon - alleges that, as the EnglandNet directory is a Government-subsidised system, this allows it to undercut its private competitors.
In addition, because it is compulsory for properties to hold an AA or VisitBritain Quality in Tourism rating to be included in the directory - thereby preventing non-subscribers from advertising their accommodation in any Tourist Information Centres - the system is in breach of competition laws.
Others have also questioned the financial viability of the service, claiming that despite the £50m spent on the EnglandNet system over the past five years, just 2,030 bookings, worth £354,718, were made between November 2008 and May 2009.
Kurt Janson, of the Tourism Alliance, told Caterer: "I think there are two separate issues here. One is the resolution of the issue as to whether the state funding of the website is compliant with European legislation on competition. The second is the review of the national quality-assurance scheme to ensure that it is providing what customers and accommodation owners want."
In fact, documents seen by Caterer, show the Government has already put together proposals for a new verification process which will allow all accommodation providers to be featured on the EnglandNet platform provided they meet new legal, safety and trading standards.
Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said: "We don't want VisitEngland involved in the grading scheme at all - except to ensure hotels are fit for purpose. Grading - and activities involved with selling rooms - should be left to the commercial sector, leaving public money spent entirely on marketing and promotion."
Jeremy Brinkworth, head of industry services at VisitEngland, said the decision-making process was "enormously complicated", but admitted: "If we do change the obligatory assessment policy, it won't alter how EnglandNet operates but it will impact what accommodation is fed into tourism websites."
By Gemma Sharkey
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