A "tricky" year has been predicted for British tourism in 2012 despite the London Olympics by the head of the country's tourism authority.
Speaking at an Institute of Travel and Tourism dinner last night, Sandie Dawe, Visit Britain chief executive, conceded there was a "propaganda war" going on to persuade potential visitors that Britain was open for business outside of the Olympics.
"The tourism industry has been aware of the issue right from the start that the year you host the Olympics your tourism is likely to go down,” she said.
"In terms of what we are doing about it we have for the past few years been pumping out information to tour operators and the media about the facts - London is not closed.
“You are up against the perception in Olympics year that people will give it a miss and they will come next year. It's like a propaganda war.
"It's likely to be a tricky year. Theatres and attractions are quite worried and some have built in to their projections that they will be up to 40% down."
Asked about inflated hotel prices, fuelled partly by unrealistic allocations taken by Olympic committees to sell in their local markets, adding to the impression that Britain was too expensive Dawe said:
"Locog [the Games organising committee] have their allocation and hotels know exactly where they stand and are pricing how they see fit."
Dawe said high level discussions have been had with hoteliers, Visit Britain and the British Hospitality Association and they have been unable to persuade them to change their pricing.
Dawe set out all the activity taking place through Visit Britain to promote the country, including the current GREAT image campaign, which is live in 14 cities round the globe, and declared the London Olympics and Paralympics will be the first social media Games, with visitors helping to promote the country while enjoying the event.
"My hope is that the Games will be a massive success in terms of spectator experience. Most of the sport and all of the torch relay will be played out against the backdrop of historic sites, attractions, towns and villages.
"If people are having a good time images of people having a good party will be shared round the world and London will be seen to be a fun place to visit. I hope that people will be Tweeting and Facebooking I'm having the time of my life, this is cool, let's come back next year."
Dawe admitted certain government policies on taxation, including APD and VAT, visas and aviation capacity were not helpful to British tourism but said that tourism minister John Penrose was aware of the issues, was "well briefed" and "engaged".
"Our view is putting up the price of a trip to Britain is inhibiting our competitiveness. Aviation capacity takes longer to fix and there are things the industry can do around value for money, tour operating capacity and how the country is marketed.
“But the policy levers [taxes and visas] are in the hands of the government and they can see how we stack up against the competition."
Dawe said there had been genuine surprise at the highest levels in government when it was presented with the facts about how Britain is faring for inbound tourism compared to other major European countries like France and Germany.
Although just over 30 million people visit Britain annually and Europeans are visiting the country in record numbers as are visitors from Brazil a lack of air connections means Britain is falling down the world tourism league table.
Last year Britain was in sixth place for visitor numbers having been overtaken by Turkey and both Germany and Malaysia are just behind.
Dawe in particular highlighted the lack of air connections to emerging countries like China meaning France attracts eight times more visitors from the country and Germany six times more.
She said source countries like India had been “taken for granted” due to historic relations while rival destinations like France with larger marketing budgets were actually attracting higher visitor numbers.
There are more air connections from Brazil to both Italy and the Netherlands, Dawe said.
Britain remains outside of the European Schengen agreement on visas and, although this is being reviewed in Europe due to national security concerns, Britain is investigating whether it is possible to create an ‘add-on’ arrangement without joining fully.
“We are falling behind in relative terms in attracting visitors from emerging markets. We are perceived as expensive and APD and VAT affect this.
“Whilst we have great strengths and assets in heritage and culture we also labour under the outdated perceptions that we are not very welcoming, not very much fun, are expensive and have poor food.
“People who have been here see us more favourably. At the moment we are helped by a weak pound but that’s advantage is only temporary.”
Dawe said the tourism industry had “quite a hefty agenda” that was bound to collide with other priorities in Whitehall but it was making progress, particularly when setting out how a focus on the sector will help with the government’s growth agenda.
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