Britain wants its share of the expanding tourist industry. But what do visitors expect from this country? To find out, Sue Webster went sight-seeing with three groups
"WE KNOW the English don't like us," said Avril, the French tour leader with candour, "and the French think of the English as typically snooty, with no sense of fun. French people are bons viveurs, you see - they like their food, their comfort and they like to have a laugh."

It's June, it's raining in London and the tourists are here - a record 22 million overseas visitors are expected to arrive in Britain this year. Not enough, however, for the British Tourist Authority. The UK share of world tourism has fallen from 6 per cent in 1987 to 4.7 per cent last year, and the BTA wants new customers. It's looking to the newly liberated never-been-allowed-out tourists from Eastern Europe and Russia, and to the newly affluent Koreans and Taiwanese.

And then there's the Northern Europeans who have already learnt not to sacrifice the full annual holiday to our inhospitable shores but, now linked by the tunnel, are prepared to drop in for a couple of days. Weekending French families are definitely a target group.

We know why we want tourists, but why do they want us? We're surly, humourless, the food's abysmal and there aren't enough tourist beds anyway.

"We're now very fashionable in northern Europe," says Tim Bartlett, the BTA representative in Brussels. Short-break visitors from France, for example, are encouraged with a radio advertising campaign called Allez- y - Be British. While Britons go on "alcohol runs" over the Channel, French trippers in Kent stock up on digestive biscuits and white sliced bread for les sandwiches. Strange but true. The perverse French, it seems, want to see, before it's too late, the customs of an "eccentric:" island people

To find out how far French tourists really do appreciate our eccentricities, I joined Avril's party of 130 Parisians for the obligatory "City Tour".

The night before, it seemed, was a good example of what French visitors really like, even if they think they're after something else. They had stayed in a good hotel, where the food was astonishingly excellent and the waiter danced around his trolley, proving that English people may have a sense of fun after all.

Perhaps this explained why everyone on the coach was in party mood at an unthinkable 8am. The mood on the pavement outside, however, where a posse of tour leaders was discussing the itinerary, was more fraught.

Somebody had scheduled a visit to Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey is closed to groups on Sundays. Changing of the Guard would no doubt be cancelled due to the rain, but if they dashed to the Tower of London and the sun came out, they would be too far away to get back.

In the end, we set off for a photo-stop on the embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament, taking in the palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Charlie Chaplin's birthplace on the way. The souvenir kiosk on the embankment does a roaring trade. At 8.30 in the morning, at least half a dozen other coach parties are taking photographs of each other on the same spot.

A guide from another group grumbles about the rain: she'll drop Hampton Court and "do some more of the panoramic". But even "the panoramic" is easier said than done. Following a 15-minute tour of the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, we experience the joys of gridlock in Victoria - empty moments which the French guide attempts to fill with observations on British history and culture. I learn, for example, that Chaucer wrote the first book in English; before that, it was the language of the peasants, since well-to-do people who spoke French. Naturally.

There are explanations of why we persist on driving on the left (there are too many of us to change), what gentlemen do in the private clubs of St James's (discuss politics and read the Times - "le fameux journal anglais") and on a particularly dreary stretch of road outside a Sainsbury supermarket we are told that the Sainsbury family is rich, and that the richest people in Britain are shopkeepers.

These partial truths fit in well with the partial view afforded by coach windows. Their height brings into sharp focus the Royal crests displayed above West End theatres and shops, which pedestrians barely notice. Together with the anecdotes about "Charles et Di", it's hard to resist the idea that London is owned by the Royal Family and that we may catch a glimpse of them at any moment.

Sadly, this is not the case. The French are denied the long-awaited view of Buckingham Palace: police cones have blocked The Mall for rehearsals of Trooping of the Colour.

A group of Koreans visiting the British Museum have had more luck. Leaving the French enduring an authentically British chicken dinner at a cabaret venue called the Cockney Tavern, I catch up with the Koreans at a cheap Chinese restaurant in Soho. They prefer to spend their money on other things,

Mr Han, one of their two guides, reveals that a party of 20 spent pounds 30,000 on Burberrys' products in a single visit recently. Mr Han's own clothes were all by Aquascutum ("I can sell them when I go home"). But while he sorts out the complaints of his party, who have not been served within five minutes of arrival in the restaurant, his colleague, Mr Hong, is still tracking down two tourists lost at Buckingham Palace.

On the whole, though, the Koreans seem easier to manage than the French. At the British Museum, they follow the guide's raised silk fan without a murmur, taking notes attentively ("to show my children").

None of them speaks English, but there is a general consensus that London is "a very romantic city", an impression gained largely from the black and white weepy Waterloo Bridge (made in 1940 with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh), which apparently enjoys Casablanca-like status in Korea.

At least three of them described Britain as the "land of gentlemen", adding that they were not at all shocked by the sight of people sleeping in the streets, since the guide had given them a full explanation - the welfare system in Britain was so perfect, that these people were there by choice.

Over at St Katharine's Dock, the Russian customers of a medieval banqueting restaurant are not so easily impressed. The food is more mediocre than medieval and the endless wassailing, table-drumming and Butlin's-style entertainment deafening.

Their tour of London has left them with more questions than answers. They have seen no factories - only banks, financial institutions, shops and tourists - so where did the city's money come from? Where indeed?

As yet Russians travel to Britain purely for sightseeing. Most hope to establish business contacts. Anita Bannister, the sovietologist and tour company director who accompanied the BTA on a fact-finding mission to Russia two years ago, talks of a fledgling travel industry characterised by agents who rushed into the business following perestroika "because they thought `now at last I can travel' ".

But many of these early Russian tour companies have already collapsed while others are fumbling their way towards an understanding of a business in which bribes are not the norm and matters are sometimes handled a little more locally than they expect.

"Someone will send me a fax saying they want to buy a hotel here," says Anita, "then it turns out they mean the Costa Brava."

Yes, the world is definitely shrinking.