In the Hot Seat: Stephen Dowd

Travel Weekly senior editor Kenneth Kiesnoski spoke with Stephen Dowd, CEO of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association (BITOA), about the outlook for U.K. tourism this year.

Q: Official figures showed a surprising 12% drop in arrivals from the U.S. through June, when many expected a rebound to begin. What's the BITOA's forecast for the rest of the year?

A:The pickup in numbers is actually quite good for forward bookings -- those held at the end of June for the three subsequent months through September -- which are looking to be up by 3.5% this month.

I think the number of visitors in June and July last year was falsely inflated due to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, so keeping somewhat level is actually very good. I think we'll end up flat or just in the positive for July, but it's really going to jump in September and October.

Q: VisitBritain head Rob Franklin said it's pointless to compare today's trans-atlantic market with the pre-9/11 glory days. Do you think U.S. arrivals in Britain will ever rebound?

A: I don't think they will "rebound" because the market's changed dramatically. People are more conscious of the implications of travel. But over a period of time, they'll get back in the habit of traveling again. The underlying thing is rebuilding confidence.

Q: Contrary to the U.S. dip, your research shows growth in arrivals from Europe. Can sheer volume from Europe make up for a shortage of high-spending U.S. visitors?

A: In 2002, Americans accounted for 20% of visitors, but the revenue from them is out of proportion to the revenue from other countries.

VisitBritain just released monthly figures for June for foreign visitors, and they're calling it a "bumper" month, which upsets me a little bit because it's spinning the numbers rather than being honest about things. It sends the wrong messages that everything's rosy in the garden when it's not.

Yes, the overall numbers are up, but the reality is our revenue still is down 15% -- because we really need the long-haul passengers back.

Q: Some tourist boards are pushing European short breaks for Americans. Is this feasible for Britain?

A: It's the wrong attitude. People coming to Britain really need to get out of London and into the country and smaller towns and cities, and you can't do that on a short break.

And it's a mistake to think that if you get them to come for a weekend, it will entice them to return in six months' time for a two-week stay. As much as we hate to say it, it's a bit of a bind to get on a plane and fly across the Atlantic.

Q: What drives the U.S. bookings you do get?

A: Price is a big consideration, but that can't last. Value for money will underpin everything. People eventually are going to ask if they're getting good value.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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