British tourism projects $15B to $20B shortfall

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LONDON -- It's a double whammy.

Great Britain's tourism industry expects to lose between $15 billion and $20 billion this year thanks to the combination of hoof-and-mouth disease, which scared people off the destination last spring, and the downturn in the U.S. economy.

Americans represent the largest overseas tourism market for the U.K., according to the British Tourist Authority, and the dearth of Yanks heading to Britain is taking a toll on hotels, restaurants, theaters and attractions.

The London Tourist Board said the city could lose $1.5 billion in tourism revenue this year. A BTA spokesman in London said Britain's $96 billion tourism industry is facing its worst crisis since the Persian Gulf war 10 years ago.

Even though hoof-and-mouth cases have dropped dramatically from their peak last April, "those lingering images [of dead animals] are sticking in people's minds," he said, and have greatly contributed to a 60% decline in high season hotel bookings.

A spokeswoman for the London Tourist Board said the city could lose $1.5 billion in tourism revenue this year -- the result of an estimated 14% decline in visitors.

"Hoof-and-mouth was never an issue in London, but we are feeling the effects of many fewer tourists in general."

Advance bookings at London hotels, she said, are down between 20% and 30%.

"The situation is dramatically affecting the theater industry in London, especially group bookings, and the restaurant business.

"The American economy is definitely playing a role and so is the strength of the British pound against the weak euro," she said, noting that half of London's 28 million annual tourists are from overseas.

Suppliers and hotel companies are "wary of discounting," she said, because the practice can have long-term disadvantages.

Rather, tourism companies and some hotels offering other kinds of incentives, such as value-added packages.

"Our biggest challenge," said the London Tourist Board spokeswoman, "is restoring confidence in Britain as a destination."

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