In the Hot Seat: Penny Cobham

Penny Cobham, aka Penelope, Viscountess Cobham, sits on the board of VisitBritain, and she arrived in New York from London a week before that route was the subject of Page 1 stories in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Lady Cobham sat down with editor in chief Arnie Weissmann to discuss airline security, exchange rates and other bilateral issues affecting tourism.

Q: Are all of the flight cancellations making you nervous?

A: To be frank: So be it. These are alarming times, and I feel reassured that people are taking action to keep transportation safe.

Q: But aren't you surprised that it's British Airways flights that are under such close scrutiny?

A: I think that's a reflection of the close relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. and shows there's good communication. But keep this in perspective -- thousands of people are crossing the pond on hundreds of flights in both directions every day. It shouldn't be too surprising that the odd flight will be canceled.

Q: The exchange rate between the dollar and pound is at 10-year highs, which makes the U.K. a relatively expensive destination. That's got to hurt during a year when everyone's hoping for a transatlantic recovery in tourism.

A: We've had considerable challenges at the Exchequer. VisitBritain can't lobby the chancellor directly, but we are a member of the Tourism Alliance, which is a child of British industry.

Among its members are some pretty big players, who do have communication with the Exchequer. But sadly, the strength of the pound revolves around issues that are much larger than tourism alone.

Q: Do you have any reason to believe that the pound will weaken any time soon?

A: We're coming up to an election year in 2005, and the government has got to keep [the effects of a strong pound] in mind. Transportation is an issue to us, and the pressures will be considerable to invest in public services like transportation. The pound may be tempered by that.

Q: Given your role with VisitBritain, what went through your mind when you watched the protests during President Bush's visit to London last November?

A: It was a war protest, not an anti-American protest. I respect people who feel strongly about issues, but I think [the war protesters] represent a minority in this case.

The protest was confined to a small portion of London, and was short in duration. [The protesters] made their point, but it didn't really affect life in London. American visitors still get a warm reception.

To contact Editor-in-Chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to [email protected].

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