It had been more than eight years since I last spoke with Penny Cobham, aka Lady Cobham. Back in 2004, she spoke in her capacity as a board member of VisitBritain; today she is chairwoman of VisitEngland.
The topics of our previous conversation underscore the extent to which current events can impact tourism. We discussed security (several British Airways flights had been canceled in the previous weeks, owing to terrorism concerns), the problems for U.K. tourism brought on by a strong pound vs. a weak dollar and concern that anti-war demonstrations, in protest of a visit to London by then-President George W. Bush, might come across as anti-American.
Though security issues did come up once during our most recent conversation, the pound had weakened by about 15% against the dollar, and there were no particular hot-button political issues between the two nations.
But something else entirely unexpected occurred in the intervening years that cannot be pinned to one event or another: The number of North American visitors to the U.K. plunged, from a high of 4.1 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2010. This is not directly related to 9/11; there had actually been a slight uptick in traffic in 2002 over 2001. Numbers bobbed up and down from 2003 through 2007, then moved steadily downward.
Cobham gives the delightfully British explanation that the U.K. simply "didn't inspire against the competition." In particular, she feels Britain lost share to Asia and "the perceived glamour of Italy."
In 2010, the 2.7 million North American visitors collectively spent about $3.1 billion. Last year, the number of visitors rose 5% and, significantly, the spend rose 10%. (Although the U.S. represents the largest number of visitors from any one country, it collectively represents only about 11% of the total number of overseas visitors.)
Cobham was visiting the U.S. to try to pump up the 2012 numbers, and this year she has plenty of tools. In June, the country will celebrate the queen's Diamond Jubilee, and in July and August, London will host the Olympics.
This year represents several other significant national milestones: It's the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth; the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic; the 50th anniversary of both the first James Bond film and Beatles recording; and -- admittedly a stretch for boosting tourism -- the 250th anniversary of the invention of the sandwich.
I asked Cobham whether the Jubilee might have limited interest for Americans when compared with last year's royal wedding.
She made a good case for why it shouldn't. The wedding, she noted, was a private affair that lasted a few hours, whereas the Jubilee will be a four-day event with many public celebrations.
Perhaps the grandest will be a river pageant featuring a seven-mile-long flotilla of 1,000 boats. It will take 90 minutes to pass, and the queen, in the lead barge, will park to watch the procession once she reaches the route's end. Park, as it happens, in front of Cobham's Thames-side residence. (Cobham is in party-planning mode.)
There will be plenty of special museum exhibits organized around the Jubilee, including a Leonardo da Vinci show in the Queen's Gallery attached to Buckingham Palace, and, later in the summer, an exhibition of diamonds within the palace itself.
But Jubilee-related events will extend well beyond London. Artists are creating installations along the length of Hadrian's Wall, and 2,012 beacons, each to be the center of a local celebration, will light the sky around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during the festivities.
The celebrations surrounding U.K.'s multiple anniversaries certainly seem inspired to attract tourists, but the Olympics might be another matter. Tom Jenkins, president of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), has made a habit of pointing out that the Olympics can have a detrimental effect on visitor numbers. In Beijing, the ETOA reported, the number of visitors actually dropped 30% during August 2008 compared with the previous August.
Cobham says tourist authorities are well aware of past trends, and that's what's driving a big push to spread visitors throughout the country and across the calendar.
For me, one welcome difference between the Jubilee and the Olympics celebrations has to do with a sense of decorum associated with the royals.
"You have to be careful," Cobham noted. "The queen is the queen. You can't brand her barge, 'Brought to you byMcDonald's.'"
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