hey kids, birmingham's really cool

Camden street style and Swinging Liverpool are enticing trendy young tourists to Britain. Even Birmingham is being flogged as hip, reports Genevieve Fox
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unbeknown to ordinary islanders, a team of latterday Crusaders is working its way across the globe, its mission to spread the Word, not of Christendom, but of the attractions of Albion. Britain currently comes in at number five in the international tourism league table and its ambassadors, the British Tourist Authority reps strategically positioned in 40 offices in America, South America, Asia and Europe, are determined to maintain its position.

But it's not easy. America and France are stealing Blighty's business and it is feared that we might drop to eighth position by the year 2000. What we need, according to BTA chief executive Anthony Sell, is greater financial investment in tourism promotion. Popular teenage superlatives such as cool and groovy make the BTA's heart thrill; for it is Britain as a bastion of youth culture that they are intent on pushing.

"A combination of heritage, tradition, excitement and fun," is how Anthony Sell sums up the campaign. "We are promoting Britain as a 24-hour country with something always happening." But whatever the official line might be, today's discerning young tourists get the Word, like their sartorial updates, from the street, either back home or on arrival.

"They know where all the trendy markets and clubs are," says one stallkeeper in London's Camden Market, whose satin snakeskin shirts and faux leopard skin coats were being admired by German, French and Scandinavian hipsters. "I don't know how they find out. They know more than we do."

Camden was recently condemned as one of London's dirtiest boroughs. She, for one, is dismayed by its unwavering appeal to the young and trendy. "Just look at it!" she exclaims, pointing up at the moth-eaten tapestry of corrugated iron sheets. "It's like a shanty town, freezing cold, dirty, and the rain drips through the so-called roof."

Such sordidity is also grist to the BTA's mill. In their magazine UK The Guide, which you'd expect to pick up in a newsagent's shelf next to iD and The Face rather than next to the usual tacky tourist brochures, Camden is sold on the Grimy and Groovy Sixties nostalgia ticket: "In swinging 60s London, Carnaby Street was the in-place to be seen, and Camden was a dreary north London suburb ... Today, Camden is as hip as Carnaby Street was then." The possibility of meeting Damon from Blur and nice girls wearing mummy's pearls "who shoot come-to-bed looks" or of kitting yourself out with a Sixties wardrobe add to the Swinging Sixties hype, followed by requisite grassroots grit: "A brief ride on the top deck of a 168 bus ... reveals Camden High Street in all its splendid and sordid glory."

This summer the residents of Hong Kong were wooed with a less promising promotion when Cantonese pop star Faye Wong was dressed up as a Beefeater in trainers. No wonder, one might think, today's youth prefer to keep their ear to the ground. But the Beefeater promotion was very successful, generating an extra pounds 24m for British tourism, and similar campaigns are planned for Korea and Taiwan next year.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is the attraction of Birmingham, clearly Britain's best kept secret. This famously grey urban conurbation is the UK's fourth most visited city, after London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. (Sue Hershfield of the BTA's New York office, struggled to recommend anything that might interest the world's youth, though she did, after considerable delay, come up with Ronnie Scott's jazz club. Anthony Sell added China Town and the Bell and Pump folk club.)

Enviably hip and happening is the image enjoyed by the capital, at least. "It is definitely considered to be more cool than Paris, where everybody looks the same," says Aaron, 26, a Canadian in London for the first time.

To natives, this often comes as a surprise. Sordid it may be. Swinging in its original, anarchic, groundbreaking way it is not. Many look longingly to Holland, for example, which has a late-night bar culture, or to New York, where English eccentricity palls in comparison to the visions that rollerblade through Greenwich Village. But all that is quintessentially English has an enduring fascination for visitors for all over the world.

But it is the the Generation X market that the tourist industry is counting on to maintain its reputation for being at the cutting edge of style and fashion. "It's the yuppie market, young American kids making $40,000 a year who can come over for a long weekend," who are wanted, according to Sue Hershfield. "They recognise that it is the centre for fashion and music and pubs. What they see on MTV's The Real World - seven or eight students from around the world videoed for 24 hours hanging out in an amazing house in Notting Hill Gate - that's what they think life is like for a student in London and that's the message that we are trying to get across."

BIRMINGHAM

Officially, Birmingham is "in the business of re-presenting itself". Sights include the the jewellery quarter, the National Exhibition Centre, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with its pre-Raphaelite collection, the hip and trendy Ikon gallery, the National Sea Life Centre, opening next year, and Cadbury World, home of the eponymous chocolate. The city is a gateway to the Cotswolds, Wales and the Midlands. As for souvenirs: "Unfortunately, we don't have an icon as such," says Phil Calcott. "We have merchandise like t-shirts that features Birmingham, and lots of Cadbury's merchandise."

"It's a place full of new ideas, not grey and industrialised like we imagined. The people don't look through you, they look at your face when they talk to you."

Pina Solinas, 27, Antonio Mura, 30, Sardinia

"This seems to be a city of people with not much money. We haven't been to any bars or night-clubs, we don't know where they are. Food is cheaper here than in Russia and tastes better. Clothes are very high quality - Reebok, Mark One."

Michael Zakharov, 24, Ludmila Serova, 25, Russia

"I was expecting a grey, industrial city. But the city centre is very nice with all the lights for Christmas. Birmingham has a reputation for having a drugs problem, that is why I came. I am doing a study on amphetamines."

Stephanie Talbot, 23, Utrecht, Holland

"We shop in Tesco. We haven't bought any souvenirs yet but we want a teapot with Shakespeare's head on it."

Puiyin Siu, 25, Yu Leung Taiy, 22, Hong Kong

EDINBURGH

Edinburgh is named "Best City for Pubs" in the Good Pub Guide, but the Edinburgh Tourist Board likes to emphasise culture. Billing itself as "Europe's Festival Capital", Edinburgh boasts jazz, book and film festivals, plus Hogmanay, and the 23-day Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. Also pitched at young people is the Scotch Whisky Centre. And shopping: woollies, whiskey, kilts, shortbread ...

"I came for girls and beer. I got this idea that Edinburgh was really great for girls and beer."

Frantz Prigent, 23, Paris

"I knew it had hundreds and hundreds of happening clubs and pubs."

Adrian Shapiro, 19, Sydney

"Yesterday I did the castle, the Royal Mile, Princes Street, and Arthur's Seat. Today I'm doing the museums. I'm a bit of a T-shirt man so I'll just buy shirts."

David Roe, 26, Melbourne

"It reminds me of Budapest with the castle and the long view."

Brother and sister Miriam Taaffe, 26, and Thomas Taaffe, 21, Dublin

"We heard that Edinburgh had a great New Year party. That's why we're here. I'm not buying any souvenirs, but I'll hire a kilt to wear for Hogmanay.

Bruce Berry, 24, Durban

"Someone I met on a kibbutz in Israel raved on and on about Edinburgh, but Irish, English and even Scottish friends in London told me not to come here. They said that even if I found a job, I'd get ripped off, and that I'd be too cold, but I still wanted to come. I planned to come for a weekend, now I'm staying on for as long as I can. It's a stunning city. My brother is coming over next year - I told him not to bother with London, just to come straight here."

Byron Schoeman, 23, Durban

LONDON

Londoners want to stand out. The city has a tradition of eccentricity and you create your own fashion. Everybody competes with each other and is very self-conscious. New York bar culture is better than London's though. There is the idea that you just have to go to London, that it's happening, whereas you go to Paris for pretty things.

"We are on a tour of Camden. The people are so different. I've never seen people wih tinted hair before. It seems a bit crazy. I wasn't expecting all this."

Yoshi, 23, Japan

"London is pretty similar to Dublin. If everybody would start smiling and say hello once in a while, that would be nice. People are so unfriendly. I had a culture shock the first time I arrived. Everybody's mad looking. I am visiting my boyfriend, who lives here, and we've been going to lots of nightclubs."

An anonymous Dubliner, 25, in Camden.

"I came to London to go to Carnaby Street and Portobello. Carnaby Street is full of tourists, but Portobello is fab, really wild. I just hang out in the cafes and watch the world go by. As for shopping, I skipped the Harrington jackets in Carnaby Street, which is what all my friends were buying, and I've bought some velvet flares from a second-hand shop. I don't do tacky souvenirs, thank you."

Magda, 22, Sweden

"London has a reputation for being cold and wet but I like it anyway. I don't go to nightclubs and I don't do drugs - it's the galleries that I like and the clothes shops. I like the way that young people here don't seem to be fashion victims. But I was in Paris last year and everybody seemed better dressed there, more sophisticated. As for shopping, I've bought a pink fake fur coat and now I've got absolutely no money left. Souvenirs? It's down to postcards, I'm afraid."

Katya, 19, Warsaw

LIVERPOOL

Promoting Liverpool is a breeze. The Beatles Anthology has attracted as much attention as Di's interview. "We just climb on the Beatles bandwagon," a British Tourist Authority spokeswoman admitted. Apart from the Cavern Quarter - a street of Beatles-themed bars, restaurants, shops and replica Cavern Club - there's also the Albert Dock's "audio-visual experience" The Beatles Story, and a Magical History Tour of Beatles sights.

"We came for the Beatles memorabilia, and we've enjoyed the pubs. It's a time warp, though: we're from the nineties; most Liverpudlians are still living in the Beatles era."

Roseanne, 24, Australia

"Matthew Street, the Cavern and Penny Lane: that's why we came. We spent pounds 60 in the Beatles shop."

Simone and Daniel, 16, Brazil

"The main thing I'd heard about Liverpool was about how great the people are. But I was very surprised by how poor it is, and also by all the empty houses: in Germany if there is an empty house there will be people moved in - legally or illegally. I'm not taking any souvenirs back with me."

Claudia, late twenties, Germany

"It's the city of the Beatles, of course. And we know that it was a port, and that there's a community of Malaysians who were sailors. We are looking out for them, meeting them would be a pleasant surprise. But we came for the Beatles, and we're very pleased with what we've seen. We've bought a Beatles cap, the complete Beatles lyrics, mugs and key chains, tea towels, some statuettes of John Lennon. We've spent about pounds 60 in all."

Nik, 36, in a party of five

MANCHESTER

Manchester United is known throughout the world, and is top of the list of Manchester's attractions, according to the Greater Manchester Visitor and Convention Bureau. It also promotes its arts and culture, and the fact that it has more theatres than anywhere in the UK, outside the West End of London. Foodies will find a bustling Chinatown and the "Curry Mile" of Indian restaurants in Rusholme. The popularity of Manchester's bands around the world brings tourists to the bars and clubs in the hope of catching a glimpse of Take That or Oasis, Simply Red or New Order. Recommended souvenirs are Manchester United merchandise; Manchester band videos, badges and T-shirts; Boddington's beer and Boddington's T-shirts and souvenirs from the Coronation Street set (for the Dutch and the Canadians, apparently).

"Describe the City? Very clean and beautiful - nice policemen and nice people; they have good manners and they're beautiful too: more light [skinned] then people in Brazil. I heard that Manchester was the best place In England after London, because of the Arndale Centre - the biggest mall in Europe - and Manchester United. I've bought postcards but no Manchester United souvenirs: you can buy them cheaper in Brazil."

Paolo, 22, Brazil

"Manchester is quite similar to Mexico City: the same kind of city, just with different weather and a different language."

Rene, 24, Mexico

"Before I came to Manchester I'd heard it was an unhappy place - industrial, very poor - but when I came here to meet a friend, I found instead a very good city, with many students, much vitality, many things to do, lots of pubs, good music and lots of places to go out to dance. I've bought a hat, and many records you can't flnd in Italy."

Vincenzo Gerace, 26, Italy

"What was the image we were given of Manchester? Big city; lots of pop bands, and football. We're not disappointed, but we thought it would be bigger, and that the people would be much nicer, and more polite, because in Finland everyone goes on about how polite the English are. The food is really bad: only fish and chips and crazy stuff - McDonalds food. We loved the Town Hall and the Santa Claus [which clambers up the spire every Christmas] but we came for the night life: the Hacienda, Rockworld [heavy metal club] and the Ritz [indie club]; but we liked Kitty O'Shea's [Irish pub] the best. And the Granada Studios - seeing Coronation Street! We laughed from the bottom of our hearts! What have we bought? Teas and marmalades and pies: typical English things. And an Oasis T-shirt and some Boddington's beer.

Katja and Rilna, 21, Finland

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