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April 4, 2008

Christopher Rodrigues: Give Britain the power to compete globally

VisitBritain has had its Government grant-in-Aid budget frozen for the past 12 years, which has led to significant cuts in real terms. During this time our tourism deficit has grown every year until it now stands at more than £18 billion. Note that the funding increase that has been announced for the Arts Council is the same as the total funding allocated for VisitBritain.

The visitor economy employs 2.1 million people throughout the country, involves 150,000 small and medium-sized companies and earns more in foreign earnings than any industry apart from the City. It is a vital part of a modern Britain, but it is a fragmented industry made up of small businesses that cannot on their own bear the burden of promoting Britain overseas. Now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS] has won additional funding from the Treasury in the recent Comprehensive Spending Review, it has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote this vital and valuable sector of the economy.

Good timing
The DCMS’s additional funding could not have come at a better time. With London hosting the 2012 Games, our industry has a fantastic opportunity to attract millions of additional visitors, before, during and after all the sporting events. Research commissioned jointly by VisitBritain and Visit London from Oxford Economics has shown that, if properly marketed, Britain could attract an additional £2.1 billion of tourism spend from the Olympic Games, a large portion of which will find its way into the Treasury’s coffers. Much of the work will be done by the industry, but we need funds to prime the pump for marketing Britain overseas. After 12 years of flat budgets and rationalisation it is unrealistic to expect this once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity to come out of our already hard-pressed resources that are fully deployed elsewhere.

We live in a fearsomely competitive world where 100 different nations are competing for every tourist cent or penny. This competition is made tougher by the relative strength of the pound. Without proper marketing support, Britain will inevitably suffer as other nations, which do recognise the importance of their visitor economies go all out to welcome the world. Compare our situation with that of tourism in the Republic of Ireland, where an 800 million euro (£557 million) package of funding for tourism development has been announced for 2007-2013.

Sustained marketing
I applaud the funding for the Arts and the continuation of free admission to national museums. But while the offer of a free ticket to the National Gallery will be welcome to every visitor it will not make a tourist decide to visit London or our regions instead of Paris or Rome or Madrid.

Attracting more visitors to Britain depends on sustained marketing programmes in our core markets as well as investment to open up the new growth markets of Asia and India. We must invest in the cake as well as the icing!

The sums involved are small, but they are vital to kick start the Olympic exploitation programme. Working together, with a relatively modest spend, the industry can build Britain’s visitor economy but we need the funds to prime the pump by creating demand for travel to Britain. We can only hope that DCMS will see its way to investing in the (tourism) cake, as well as the (arts and culture) icing.

Christopher Rodrigues CBE is chairman of Visit Britain.

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