Participants at the recent Best of Britain & Ireland Travel Trade Forum in London struck a note of cautious optimism about the state of tourism for 2010. Or as one official put it, "We think this year will suck less."
The event, held March 17 and 18 at the Olympia exhibition center, drew more than 2,500 participants and 70 exhibitors, including representatives from tourist boards, hotels, airlines and other suppliers from the U.K. and Ireland.
The value message, a key marketing push throughout 2009, is being credited for helping boost arrivals to Britain by 3% last year over 2008, despite the global downturn.
"The currency exchange vs. the euro has resulted in growth in visitors from Europe, and in the last three months we have begun to see the Americas coming back," said Margaret Hodge, Britain's minister of culture and tourism. "The challenge will be getting the business tourists back."
More value, more vacationers
Hodge touted free entry to Britain's national museums and galleries, a program that has been in place since 2002, as another important ingredient in promoting the U.K. as a value destination. She noted that in recent surveys, eight of the top 10 destinations for visitors are in that category.
Money-saving offers also are available through the VisitLondon and VisitBritain websites as well as through the Oyster transport card, which trims prices on theater tickets as well as on transportation on buses; the Underground, or "Tube"; and light rail. Visitors looking to explore regions outside of London also can take advantage of deals on BritRail passes.
Exhibitors at the event vented their frustration about high value-added-tax rates, which they said discouraged visitors from visiting paid attractions, but Hodge expressed doubt that any anti-tax measure would pass during this difficult economy.
VisitLondon representatives touted the success of the Only in London campaign, launched in spring 2009, which is reported to have generated about $150 million in overall economic benefit in its first phase.
The program highlights attractions unique to the capital, such as the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum and the champagne bar at St. Pancras International rail station, touted as Europe's longest.
VisitLondon official 2010 guides, including the City Guide, Travel Trade Guide and Accommodation Guide, are downloadable from www.visitlondon.com.
A number of A-list events on tap in the coming years -- including this year's Ryder Cup golf tournament in Wales and the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, which marks the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the British throne -- are expected to further boost inbound tourism, Hodge said. That's especially true of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which she referred to as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity for London.
To stem concerns that local suppliers will jack up prices during the 2012 Games, more than 350 venues and suppliers have signed a Fair Price and Practice Charter promising to keep prices "fair and reasonable" from June 1 to Sept. 30, 2012. The charter is a partnership between the city of London, VisitBritain and the U.K. tourism industry.
The number of hotel rooms in London is expected to increase by 12% by 2012, bringing the total number of rooms in the city to more than 123,000.
As to crowd control, suppliers point out that Olympic Park will be located in East London, leaving the rest of the city free to operate more or less as usual. That said, the park will be accessible in about seven minutes from St. Pancras station, which also serves as the entry point from the Continent via Eurostar.
Visitors can also access the park via Tube, bus or Docklands Light Railway, which serves travelers with disabilities -- an especially important advantage during the concurrent Paralympic Games.
Visitors without tickets to Olympic events will be able to experience the Games by watching the Olympic Torch Relay; the marathon, triathlon and road cycling events; or checking out the action on huge screens set up at 18 sites across Britain, from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Plymouth, England.
VisitBritain, in conjunction with London 2012's Nations & Regions Group and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, launched the www.tourism2012games.org website at the trade show. The site is designed to help suppliers make the most of the Games in their product development. Users can also register to receive e-newsletters offering updates relevant to the Games.
Visitors heading to London this year can also take advantage of a number of anniversary events, including the 50th anniversary of Carnaby Street, whose clothing shops burst onto the pop-culture scene in the Swinging '60s; the 30th anniversary of Covent Garden; the 10th anniversary of the Tate Modern museum of contemporary art; and the Serpentine Gallery's 40th anniversary.
Ireland, Scotland and Wales
Although there's much ado in London and England, the Best of Britain & Ireland Travel Trade Forum also addressed the state of tourism in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The countries may be referred to as Europe's "Celtic fringe," but they're very much at the heart of U.K. and Ireland tourism.
Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland, who is charged with promoting travel to and in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, described the state of tourism in 2009 as "challenging but resilient." He also noted that his department has received a 3% increase in marketing monies this year, despite cuts made at other Irish government entities.
Gibbons touted improvements at Dublin Airport, new Dublin landmarks such as the Convention Centre and Aviva Stadium and new roadways throughout the country as important investments for tourism on the Emerald Isle.
"Our value has never been better, thanks to cheap air, hotels and attractions, and Tourism Ireland will be hammering home" its message of affordability, Gibbons said.
Representatives from VisitScotland were on hand at the confab, meanwhile, to talk about the upcoming Perth 800 festivities, with a menu of cultural and sports activities on tap, and events that will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of J.M. Barrie, author of the children's classic "Peter Pan," in Kirriemuir.
Scotland has just come off its successful Homecoming Scotland year, which encouraged foreign visitors to explore their Scottish roots, real or imaginary, by playing golf, sampling whisky and exploring the poetry of Robert Burns.
According to VisitScotland, a visit to at least one Highland games event is another cultural "must" for every visitor to Scotland from spring to autumn, no matter the year. Highland Games, which take place across the country, highlight traditional Scottish cultural and sporting traditions and usually comprise track and field events, piping and dancing competitions and so-called heavy events, such as tug-of-war and the caber toss.
There is a full program of Highland games across Scotland throughout the summer. One of the most famous is held in the late summer at the Braemar Gathering, traditionally attended by the Royal Family.
This year's Highland games calendar starts with the May 9 Gourock Highland Games in Gourock, western Scotland and wrap up with the Invercharron Highland Games at Balblair Farm in Bonar Bridge, set for Sept. 18.
At VisitWales, the big news continues to be the Ryder Cup. The tournament, set for October at the Celtic Manor Resort, on the outskirts of Newport in southern Wales, is expected to not only highlight the destination for golfers but also for general leisure travelers attracted by the attention the country will receive during the event.
For more on travel and tourism to Great Britain and Ireland, see www.visitbritain.com, www.visitlondon.com, www.discoverireland.com, www.visitscotland.com and www.visitwales.com.