U.K.'s Howells: We're pretty safe

enior editor Kenneth Kiesnoski discussed the impact of security on British tourism with Kim Howells, U.K. minister of tourism, during Howells' recent New York visit to launch Visit-Britain's recovery campaign:

Travel Weekly:What's the greatest challenge facing tourism recovery in Britain?

Howells: First of all, we've got to rebuild some sense of security for travel in general. We can't take anything for granted.

We've got to try to convince people that after having to deal with the Irish Republican Army for 30-odd years, Great Britain is a pretty safe country to visit. ... And also to refresh people's memories about Britain; not only the "shoulder-to-shoulder" stuff about the [Iraq] war, but that it's a beautiful place to visit.

We've quoted the latest Lonely Planet travel guide, which describes [Britain] as the most beautiful island on Earth.

We've tended to undersell ourselves in that sense. We've always assumed that beautiful islands equal palm-fringed beaches. I don't think it's a bad idea to remind people of what [we have].

TW:Might there might be an ironic drawback to the alliance with the U.S.? Do you fear Americans will avoid the U.K. because it's a possible terror target?

Howells: It's hard to say, but we've been looking very carefully at how people within Britain see London. We know that after 9/11, there were big worries in the rest of Britain about whether London was a target. All the indications are that [these fears] have subsided.

I'm sure a lot of Americans must be worried about traveling at all -- but we have experience with these things in Britain. You can never guarantee [something is] not going to happen, but we've got a police force and intelligence and security agencies that are very experienced in reading the signs, and they're looking out [for terrorism].

TW:In the U.S., tourism promotion is left largely to the states. How important is tourism recovery and development to your central government?

Howells: Things are transformed as far as tourism is concerned. There was a huge contrast between the lobbying influence, for example, of farmers during hoof-and-mouth and the almost-complete absence of lobbying by the tourist industry. We suddenly woke up to the fact that tourism is a $121 billion-per-year industry.

I think as a result of the events of 2001 -- the downturn of the U.S. economy, hoof-and-mouth and 9/11 -- government now takes a completely different view of tourism.

The proof is that the [U.K.] treasury parted with $33 million last year to run our visitor campaign, and the prime minister has [appeared in] a TV advertisement we'll be showing in the U.S.

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