Comment: Small mercy from ministers

Comment: Small mercy from ministers

The government delivered a small, pleasant surprise to the industry yesterday, says Ian Taylor, but it was no cause for hanging out the bunting

Is the government listening? Maybe - a little. How else to interpret news that VisitEngland’s budget has been spared from the £11.5 billion slash-athon that is the government spending review.

VisitBritain will suffer a 5% cut, we learned yesterday, rather less than the 12% reduction feared.

This was after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) which presides over the meagre marketing budgets for domestic and inbound tourism saw an 7% cut.

Inevitably, those in the sector feared the worst given culture secretary Maria Miller reportedly made great efforts to hold cuts in the much-bigger Arts Council budget at 5%.

The European Tour Operators Association (Etoa) warned last week that a 12% cut for tourism was being touted.

In the event, sport and tourism minister Hugh Robertson appears to have done a decent job of special pleading. Robertson hailed the news by pointing out: “Tourism is a key growth area.”

Indeed, that has been the consistent message from every quarter of the inbound and outbound sectors. But until now government attitudes to the industry have appeared more hidebound than anything.

Does this mark a shift? Probably not - welcome though it is.

VisitBritain chairman Christopher Rodrigues confirmed the settlement would leave the body’s funding for 2015-16 at just under £20 million - not much for a global promotion budget when the US plans to make $200 million available to Brand USA in public and private funds.

Nonetheless, Rodrigues gamely described it as “a good result” and “clear evidence of ministers' commitment to the tourism industry”.

However, Thomas Cook chief executive Harriet Green summarised the underlying government attitude perfectly at the Travel Weekly Business Breakfast at which she appeared yesterday.

“It seems to me,” said Green, “that through a whole host of means, the government sees this industry as a revenue generator.”

The Thomas Cook boss is in a position to know, since she probably has greater access to the heart of the government than anyone in the sector.

Green sits on David Cameron’s business advisory group along with the chief executives of Google, Tesco, Vodafone, John Lewis, British Aerospace, business group the CBI and others.

The group meets quarterly with the prime minister, Chancellor George Osborne, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and business secretary Vince Cable.

Green reported she makes a point of sitting next to Osborne to whisper in his ear. He must be delighted.

It has been suggested the industry has to get its message beyond the ears of ministers to the PM and Chancellor if it is to make any progress. Green obviously gets that and, equally obviously, is no pushover. She can see there is work to do.

The Thomas Cook head joined the advisory group before joining the industry so she also brings an outside view of the sector and its lobbying.

It is worth noting, therefore, that she added: “You don’t want to be whining only about your industry’s things.”

This is something the wider industry might do well to appreciate. Endlessly expressing frustration is unlikely to cut it.

Ministers have been out in force at recent industry events, suggesting at least they are receptive to being courted.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin appeared briefly at the Abta Travel Matters conference last week and no fewer than three members of government turned up at the British Hospitality and Tourism Summit early in June.

McLoughlin took the opportunity to sing the praises of the HS2 high-speed rail project then promptly left for the Commons where he announced an £8 billion hike in the cost of the programme.

That appeared to throw the whole thing up in the air, helped by Tony Blair’s former prince of darkness Peter Mandelson branding HS2 an “expensive mistake”.

It’s tempting to say Egypt shows one possible outcome when governments systematically fail to listen, but obviously the situations are worlds apart.

However, Harriet Green made an interesting observation on Egypt in respect of travel, arguing the sector “overdoes” the impact of events outside its control.

Perhaps that is how we should view the government.

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