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With the right government policies, the industry could play an even greater role in boosting growth than it already does, says Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association
Tourism and aviation policy have been a lot in the news of late. First, there was the government’s decision to delay its response to the Airports Commission until at least the summer of 2016.
Then it was announced that a relaunched Tourism Industry Council would hold its inaugural meeting on 13 January, and that transport would be among the Council’s top-three priorities alongside apprenticeships and deregulation.
The Airport Operators’ Association (AOA) – representing more than 50 UK airports and 170 suppliers – is pleased to be represented on the Council alongside fellow aviation organisations and companies.
Its inclusion represents government recognition of the role the airports sector plays in enabling overseas visitors to travel to the UK and to visit all parts of the country.
Tourism and aviation are already UK success stories, but with more joined-up government thinking, we could see both playing an even greater part in boosting our economy and creating jobs.
For too long, tourism has been the Cinderella of UK industry, not invited to the policy-making ball.
It has sometimes seemed that airports and airlines have succeeded as a sector despite rather than because of government policy. Now there seems a growing understanding in Whitehall that tourism and aviation can boost the national economy and help regional economies to grow.
We have seen some important steps forward in aviation policy. Despite a delay in issuing a full response, the government did announce its support for the Airports Commission’s assertion that the UK requires additional runway capacity.
The Department for Transport (DfT) announced that £7 million would be spent on supporting 11 new air links to and from the UK’s smaller airports.
Following campaigning by the Fair Tax on Flying coalition – of which the AOA is a member – there have been welcome reductions in Air Passenger Duty (APD).
There has also been action to make it easier and less expensive for tourists to obtain UK visas, with recent changes for Chinese visitors the latest in a line of improvements.
We hope ministers will consider further policy changes in 2016.
Our approach to the Tourism Council, established to advise ministers on the newly-created Inter-Ministerial Group on Tourism, will be constructive and positive.
We’ll listen carefully to see if there are new ways in which UK airports could help to advance tourism’s agenda, but we’ll also have suggestions on how joined-up policy making and the right aviation policies could help boost tourism across the UK.
Ministers should take a close look at what more can be done to encourage overseas visitors to come to the UK and to get more of them to travel to all parts of the country.
In 2010, David Cameron said he wanted the UK to be a Top 5 global destination. At the time we were sixth. Despite the number of visitors creeping up, we have slipped to eighth behind Germany and Turkey. So we clearly need to do more.
We would like to see an acknowledgement from ministers that there remain barriers to tourism for which the government bears some responsibility.
The two most important are the still-too-high levels of APD and the cost and complexity of acquiring visas.
It is not just that UK levels of APD are internationally uncompetitive. There are looming challenges for airports as the Scottish government prepares to cut APD north of the border and consideration is given to devolving the tax to the Welsh government.
The Prime Minister has said he wouldn’t allow airports outside Scotland to be disadvantaged by this. That statement of principle needs to be translated into policies.
On visas, the Treasury has signalled it is contemplating new fee increases to help the government pay down the national debt. There is a battle in Whitehall to convince the Chancellor that if increases are too high and too sudden this could damage the government’s broader economic objectives.
There is also the issue of the welcome at the border where spending cuts risk hitting the quality of service at immigration desks.
On spreading tourism across the regions, an important factor is the cost of domestic travel and there is no escaping the truth that high levels of APD do not help.
But perhaps the single most-important area is surface access to and from our airports.
Across the country, better road and rail connections to airports would make it easier for tourists to travel on to and return from the places they want to visit.
We would like to see the DfT develop a national surface-access strategy, and work with Network Rail, Highways England and regional bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and local authorities to deliver it.
As an example, the process for awarding new rail franchises should take into account the need to ensure good rail connections to airports throughout the day, including for passengers arriving and departing late at night and early in the morning.
I recognise many of these issues are challenging. But the Tourism Council and cross-departmental ministerial meetings on tourism should exist precisely to confront such issues and discuss solutions.
The AOA and our airport members look forward to playing our collective part.
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