How high are the stakes for tourism in the United Kingdom this year? Consider this: The last time a sitting prime minister was personally involved in promoting British tourism was during the hoof-and-mouth crisis in 2001.
At the time, tourism dropped through the floor, and a concerned Tony Blair invited travel media from around the globe to come to the U.K. to see for themselves that all was well. He made time to personally speak with reporters, including Travel Weekly's Nadine Godwin, then editor in chief.
This past fall, current Prime Minister David Cameron made stops in New York, Paris and other major international markets to help launch VisitBritain's new "GREAT Britain" promotional campaign.
His high visibility as a pitchman for his country prompted me to request an interview with him when he was in Washington last month. I received a reply that his schedule was packed, but would I be interested in doing an email interview with him?
I did ask if I would truly be corresponding with the prime minister, or with his press staff.
"Of course we provide the PM with briefing, but the final responses would come from him," came the reply. I was invited to submit up to five questions.
So, here are my five questions, and his responses, verbatim:
Travel Weekly: It's unusual for the prime minister to take such a prominent role in U.K. tourism promotion -- typically, that only has happened when tourism is threatened, as occurred during the hoof-and-mouth crisis. What triggered your interest in becoming visibly involved in tourism promotion? And is it being undertaken proactively, or in response to a perceived threat to tourism?
Cameron: 2012 is set to be to be a spectacular year for the U.K. With the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the pageantry and parades of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the torch relay and the 2012 Cultural Festival, the spotlight will be on the whole country.
Promoting tourism to the U.K., and offering visitors the best possible experience when they come here, is really important to me. Not just because I'm hugely proud of this country and want as many people as possible to experience what we have to offer but also because it is an important part of our economy. As prime minister, I want to harness the huge potential this area holds, which is why, for the first time, we have a tourism strategy that reaches right across government, looking at policies from a tourism perspective.
TW: The Olympics tend to displace and to some extent disrupt normal tourism in the countries where they're held, and some U.S. tour operators have reduced the number of tours they're bringing to the U.K. and moved the start of European itineraries out of London for a six-week period around the Olympics. What steps are you taking to ensure that the customary decline of tourism for an Olympic host country will not occur in the U.K. in 2012?
Cameron: Not all host cities have had the same experience, but we want to make sure that the Olympics have a positive impact on tourism in Britain. We want to use them as a magnet to draw people to the U.K., but we're confident that visitors will then want to go and explore everything Britain has to offer. That's why we launched the GREAT campaign, to sum up all the things that make Britain great: three of the top five museums and galleries in the world and a unique blend of the old and the new in the history and heritage of our castles, landscapes and royal houses, alongside the cutting-edge culture of our music and art, our theater and fashion.
TW: The Air Passenger Duty (APD) is being roundly criticized by tourism interests on both sides of the Atlantic, and Oxford Economics research, sponsored by the World Travel and Tourism Council, concluded that the APD will create a net loss to the British economy of 4.2 billion pounds and put 91,000 jobs at risk. What is your reaction? Are you satisfied with the APD, or, if you would amend it, what would you change?
Cameron: We've always been clear that when it comes to reducing the deficit and restoring public finances, all sectors must play their part, and aviation cannot be an exception. We believe that the current system, which varies the rate at which APD is paid depending on distance traveled, is a fair one, and changing it would be costly in itself and likely to create different problems.
But there's a more fundamental point here, and that is that, in the end, the size and nature of taxes on flying in whatever form they take is only one of a number of factors that determine whether people will choose to come here. I'm confident that with everything we have to offer in 2012 and beyond, people will still choose Britain as a holiday destination.
TW: In the U.S., the manner in which our immigration officers greet visitors has been a source of some controversy, and the U.S. Travel Association says that fear of our entry processes has discouraged millions of visitors from coming to the U.S., has cost American jobs and has had a multibillion-dollar negative impact on the U.S. economy. How would you rate the job the U.K. is doing in this regard? What is your approach to balancing security concerns while still encouraging visitation?
Cameron: Security always has to be a priority, but it should never deter people from visiting Britain. To help make us more competitive in attracting visitors from growth markets like India and China, our tourism strategy has set out ways that we want to improve the visa application process to make it more convenient and less time-consuming for people wanting to come here.
But it's important to make sure that people see the best Britain has to offer from the moment they arrive, which is why we've also made some softer changes, like showing iconic images from the GREAT campaign, including some of Britain's stunning landscapes, throughout airports, as a reminder of all the experiences on offer beyond the confines of a terminal.
TW: The British tourism balance of payments has been in long-term decline since the mid-1980s. In addition to your personally getting behind VisitBritain's promotional efforts, are you taking any policy measures to reverse this trend?
Cameron: We realize that the travel market has become increasingly competitive, but 2011 saw a return to growth for the U.K. travel industry, and we are taking a number of steps to make sure this continues. An important part of our recent tourism strategy is cutting the red tape and bureaucracy that people in the industry told us can stifle businesses.
We've also just introduced a 20.12% discount scheme which will encourage tourist businesses such as hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions to offer customers a discount of at least 20.12% on accommodation or selected services or admission fees. Nearly 2 million hotel nights have already been discounted, which will make significant difference to travelers in the U.K.
There is real potential for the number of tourists to increase to around 40 million by 2020, and we will be doing everything we can to achieve this.
Whether or not Britain is one of the countries in which more tourism is displaced than attracted by an Olympics remains to be seen. But I do not recall any host country being as aware of the possible consequences, and being proactive to avert the potential problems. It will be a good test case for whether there is anything a host country can do to mitigate Olympic fallout.
Britain does have an extraordinary number of high-profile events this year, and the travel industry tends to take a wet-blanket view of events that disrupt our normal channels of commerce. The job of selling the U.K. in 2012 is really a two-stage affair: persuading consumers to travel to Britain and convincing the industry not to dissuade them. Cameron and VisitBritain, it appears, are working both fronts.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.