Hamish McRae: As Britons see the rest of the world, so the best of the world may come here

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The Independent Online

Been on holiday yet? Off this weekend? Or sticking around for most of August to miss the scrum at the airport? It's that time of the year when we can reflect on the extraordinary capacity of Britons for foreign travel - and what that might signify for our economic future.

The figures both for the numbers of British residents going abroad and foreign ones coming here are shown in the chart. These are for the latest 12 months available, the year to May, with the comparable figures for the year to May 2005.

The most obvious point is that the number of Britons going abroad is more than double that of foreigners coming here. We make nearly 68 million visits overseas, which works out on average at more than one per person per year, and accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the total global trips of 700 million. One in 10 foreign travellers are Britons.

By contrast, only 31 million people come here. As you might expect, travel to and from continental Europe is the largest single segment of both outward and inward visits.

More surprising perhaps is that journeys to and from America are the most balanced: 4.4 million Americans come here while 4.6 million Britons go in the other direction, though this latter figure is in decline - the only region where that has happened. It is hard to see why, given that the pound has remained quite strong. Worries about immigration hassles? Not sure.

Nevertheless, the population of the US is more than five times that of the UK, so if the numbers are equal, this means we as individuals are five times as likely to go there are they are to come here.

I started to look at the number of foreign visits that other nationalities make to all destinations, using our 68 million as a point of comparison. It is difficult to get up-to-date data, but as far as I can see, US residents make only 28 million visits abroad a year. On average, an American makes a foreign trip just once every 11 years.

Of course, this is partly a question of distance. It is also a function of what is available: any American who simply wants to see a different physical landscape does not need to go outside the States. But it is also a question of cultural choice: do you want to experience a foreign culture, a foreign language, foreign food?

The French, like the Americans, prefer to stay at home. With the same population as the UK, only 18 million go abroad. The Japanese are much the same, indeed more so, with only 18 million of the 130 million population travelling overseas each year.

If the US, France and Japan are at one end of the scale as non-travellers, at the other end come countries such as Sweden, whose population of nine million make 12.6 million visits abroad each year. They travel even more than we do; must have something to do with the long Nordic nights.

So what do these huge differences in national propensity to travel have to do with economics? It would be silly to claim that having people who do not go abroad much is an economic disadvantage. The US, France and Japan are perfectly successful economies. Indeed, all three countries are bases for immensely successful global businesses. In so far as they do have economic problems, these do not seem to have much to do with the unwillingness of their citizens to travel.

The more intriguing possibility is that countries which find it hard to attract foreign talent put themselves at a potential disadvantage. These travel statistics, after all, represent two entirely different types of travel: leisure and business. The former is consumption, the latter production. When we go overseas for a holiday, we are simply spending money - in France, Italy or wherever - that we might have spent at home. The UK has a large deficit on the balance of payments travel account, which does not help our overall trading position.

But quite apart from that is the business aspect, and here I think a culture that makes it unattractive for non-residents to live and work may increasingly be putting itself at a competitive disadvantage.

The French-British migration pattern is a good example. Lots of us holiday in France and quite a few retire there, but not many of us move over to work. By contrast, perhaps 250,000 French people work in the UK.

So we get their energetic young while they get our inevitably less energetic middle-aged and old.

The inward migration over the past year into the UK from the new EU member states is not fully reflected in these travel statistics. There has certainly been a surge in the three months to the end of May in foreign visits, for these were up 7 per cent on the previous three months.

However, this does not pick up the scale of the increase in the size of the workforce as a result of inward migration. Something like 500,000 workers have come in from the new member states in the past year, helping relieve pressure on what would otherwise have been a tight labour market.

But we don't just get foreign labour - we also get foreign talent. And I suspect that having access to multinational talent will become a more important economic asset in the years ahead.

Now come back to the cultural aspect of international travel. The US, Japan and France have in common the fact that their people do not travel. They also have in common the fact that their business leadership is overwhelmingly national. There are a tiny number of exceptions - Carlos Ghosn at Renault-Nissan, Sir Howard Stringer at Sony - but a foreign chief executive officer is a rarity.

Not so in the UK, for some 30 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies have a non-national at the top. In a way, our propensity for travel to other cultures runs in parallel with our willingness to welcome someone from another culture to come and sort out our companies.

People still worry about the inability of Britons to speak foreign languages but there is no evidence that this puts the UK at an economic disadvantage. It is not just that employers do not seem to value these skills; the problem is that it is hard to know what language you should learn. From a cultural point of view, perhaps French or Spanish, but from a business point of view maybe Mandarin.

But if, as a culture, we not only practise our bad French on the Côte d'Azure but also welcome having a French company come and sort out our electricity supplies, then we are positioning ourselves to benefit from the next stage of globalisation.

And that is the fight to attract global talent.

The dismal science gets into our heads

"Trust me, I'm an economist." Really? Well, yes.

One of the great things that has been happening to the study of economics in recent years has been the focus on the micro rather than the macro. We used to worry mainly about the big issues: GDP growth, interest rates, inflation and so on. We still do, of course. But beside that has been a new interest in what economics can tell us about the small things. Why do people behave as they do? What makes people happy? How do we fix the NHS? Actually those do not sound small at all, but they are concerned with the detail of the behaviour of millions of people, rather than the mass of an economy.

The subject has been moving along steadily but two best-selling books have suddenly brought this sort of work to public notice. One is Freakonomics, written by two Americans, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The other is The Undercover Economist by a British author, Tim Harford. In rather different ways, the two books relate economics to how people behave - from drug dealers in Chicago (Freakonomics) to supermarket shoppers or coffee drinkers at Starbucks in London (The Undercover Economist).

And now there is a treat in store for British TV viewers interested in this area, for the latter book has been transformed into a TV series called Trust me, I'm an Economist, which starts on BBC2 on 18 August. And the first programme is about love.

No, it will not tell you how to capture the heart of the man or woman of your dreams (though it does show some things you clearly should not do). It will, though, help explain the extent to which we are rational economic beings and the extent to which we are not. And it will explain how the market can be harnessed to all sorts of socially beneficial aims.

With a bit of luck, it might also help economically illiterate policy makers to understand why their policies so often fail. We could do with a bit more of that.

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