THE MISSING MILLIONS ; BUSINESS ANALYSIS ++ Britain's Tourism Industry Is Suffering as the High Pound Turns Away Americans and Japanese. Those Who Do Come Are Staying near the Airport and Shunning the Beauty Spots. by Rob Griffin
Griffin, Rob, The Independent (London, England)
These are worrying times for Britain's tourism industry. The headline number of overseas visitors may be steadily increasing, but the underlying trends indicate that it could end up being a disastrous summer season for many resorts.
Not only has the UK become an expensive place for the all- important American and Japanese tourists because of the pound's strength against the dollar and yen, but it is also facing fierce competition from rival European destinations.
Official figures illustrate the point. Although the UK welcomed an extra 200,000 overseas visitors in the first three months of this year in comparison to the same period in 2006, those from North America fell 7 per cent to 750,000.
The number of visits from the Japanese, meanwhile, currently stands at 323,000 - well down on its 1995 peak, when 619,000 trips were made. Back then, these visitors were generating [pound]539m for the economy. Today, the figure is little more than [pound]200m.
Elliott Frisby, spokesman for VisitBritain, the national tourism agency, blamed the situation on a combination of factors, including terrorist attacks, currency problems and economic issues, such as the fall-out from the Asian crisis of the late 1990s.
"The fact visitor numbers from North America are down could mean we're starting to see the initial impact of the dollar-pound situation, but it's by no means the only issue," he said. "Americans have increasingly been going to Italy instead of London."
But the fightback is already underway. VisitBritain has launched a campaign extolling the virtues of different parts of the country, illustrated by its latest drive aimed at the US market called: Be a Brit different.
The idea is to emphasise how many things there are to see in the country. A quick visit to the website www.visitbritain.us and you can see everything from information about the East Midlands to a preview of a forthcoming cheese-rolling competition.
"We still anticipate a good year in 2007 for British tourism and expect total inbound visits to reach 33 million," added Mr Frisby. "In addition, the total amount being spent by these visitors is expected to be around [pound]16bn."
So if the numbers of tourists from key markets such as the United States are declining, where are all the visitors coming from?
The greatest increase has come from the 12 "accession" countries which joined the European Union in May 2004. Visits from these places, which include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, have risen from 740,000 in 2002 to 2.7 million last year.
However, Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said the strong overall visitor numbers masked the real picture. While London is extraordinarily strong, he says, many other parts of the country are suffering. Most overseas visitors are now unwilling to explore the rest of Britain, he claimed, unless a city has direct airline access. While London, Manchester and Edinburgh are on the tourists' itinerary, therefore, smaller towns and English country regions such as the Lake District and the Cotswolds are too often ignored.
"The size and dominance of the capital makes it look as if things are good, but in reality London is exceptional, the regional cities are okay and rural areas are starting to have problems," he explained. "Gone are the days when people flew into London and then spent a week touring in the car."
Liz Hodges, chairman of the Exeter and Heart of Devon Hotels Association and boss of the Globe Hotel, has first-hand experience of this problem.
"We don't have a huge number of overseas visitors as I don't think many have found this far South-west," she said. "Exeter has been buoyant because it's got an airport, but leisure businesses in some of the more rural areas have struggled in recent years."
The coming months, she conceded, could be a struggle on all fronts, with interest rates affecting the number of UK-based visitors and exchange rates hitting the tourists. …