Willie Walsh accused the UK government of being “anti-aviation” yesterday and warned ministers and the industry “if you snooze, you lose”.
The boss of British Airways’ parent IAG attacked the coalition over Air Passenger Duty, the UK’s “poor visa process” and “squeezed airport capacity”.
Walsh told the British Hospitality and Tourism Summit in London: “The government has taken an anti-aviation position. There is a lack of policy and a lack of ambition.” He insisted: “The government should commit to a strategy that eliminates APD, reforms the visa process and develops airport capacity.”
The IAG chief also hit out at cuts in spending on London transport, expected to form part of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review later this month.
He said: “I’m alarmed that Transport for London could be subject to swingeing cuts. We should be investing more, not less. Anything that harms London’s economy harms the UK economy.”
Walsh pointed out 4.5 million people used the tube on a single day in August during the London Olympics and said: “Imagine the negative media coverage around the world if the system buckled.”
He argued: “Any cut to London transport would be an own goal. The Chancellor must maintain investment and commit to a long-term spending package for London.” Walsh suggested Paris has spending guaranteed until 2030 and asked:”If you were looking to invest, where would you pick?”
He pointed out Dubai has overtaken Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Singapore to become the world’s second-biggest international airport and said: “The Gulf states and China have become powerful players in aviation and tourism because they regard it as key for growth.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers senior economic advisor Andrew Sentance, a former member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, told the summit: “There is not enough recognition of the role of the sector. Government has to provide the infrastructure, education and tax and regulatory environment to ensure tourism and hospitality prosper.”
Leading figures in the hotel sector agreed. InterContinental Hotels Group chief executive Richard Solomons said: “We can be an engine for growth, but we need government to create the right conditions. We need to see tourism and hospitality much higher up the agenda.”
InterContinental chief executive for Europe Angela Brav added: “We need to make it easier for people to come here … We need to force the government to listen to us. Maybe we should picket the prime minister’s office.”
Hilton Worldwide president for Europe Simon Vincent reported a 50% increase in Chinese visitors to Hilton properties in the US last year after the visa process was speeded up. “In the UK we saw a 1% increase in Chinese visitors,” he said. But there was a 43% increase from Brazil after the country joined the UK visa-waiver programme.
China International Travel Services president Ning Ning Yu said the difficulty and cost of obtaining a visa was not the only drawback to visiting Britain. Chinese visitors also found it difficult to obtain tax refunds on goods bought in the UK.
She said: “The top requirement is shopping for maybe 30% of Chinese tourists. But in the UK, the tax refund system is ‘so-so’. Only at Heathrow is it convenient. If you fly from other airports you never know whether you will get it.
“This has become a big problem. We can never guarantee a tax refund on shopping when people come to the UK. I don’t know why the UK can’t improve this. Chinese visitors spend £3 billion a year. Each Chinese passenger spends £1,600. They expect a tax refund.”
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