But the apparently healthy figures hide the relatively low growth rate of the industry in Britain in comparison with our main competitors. Tourism is growing by about 4.4 per cent a year in Britain while the world average is 5.5 per cent.
The sluggish growth rate has resulted in a drop in Britain's market share from 6.7 per cent to 4.3 per cent since 1980. Britain is now the world's sixth largest tourist destination; in 1980 it was fifth. Britain now runs a pounds 3bn deficit in tourism; there was a surplus in 1985.
Anthony Sell, chief executive of the British Tourist Authority, outlined the ways the organisation plans to reverse the relative decline of British tourism. He said the BTA had to do more than just get foreign visitors to come to Britain - they had to be persuaded to stay longer and to spend more.
Lack of co-ordination between the many different tourism organisations was to blame for the loss of market share, Mr Sell said. 'Our challenge is to work together to increase our impact abroad. Our potential customers are comparing the UK with all the other, perhaps more exotic, destinations within their budgets.'
The BTA said that if Britain matched the international growth rate in tourism, an extra pounds 4.5bn would be generated from an extra 10 million visitors a year by 2001.
In an attempt to increase the number of visitors, the BTA is relying increasingly on information technology to boost Britain's image abroad. It has set up a new free telephone line in the US, which allows casual inquirers to find out about virtually any facet of British life.
An on-line link means callers can find out about the availability of theatre tickets 18 months in advance. The service is attracting 30,000 calls a month.
In Japan, a 24-hour fax-back service allows millions of people to receive information on accommodation and events across Britain. Callers simply answer a few questions and the information is faxed to them.
'We will also consider more and more this kind of approach in Europe because it may be the lowest-cost solution to communicating with first-time business in markets that are sophisticated enough to pick up the message,' Mr Sell said.
The BTA is also targeting markets more precisely. Britain is sold to the Japanese on the basis of our love of afternoon tea. The Americans love the traditional British life. The French are persuaded to travel to Britain so they can meet eccentrics, and the Spanish travel to sample the highlands of Scotland.
However, Julia Hailes, co- author of Holidays That Don't Cost The Earth, sounded a note of caution. She said growth in tourism had a serious environmental impact. 'Stonehenge has been ruined by infrastructure. All the mystique has gone,' she said.
'In many ways tourism is good because it broadens the mind, but it has to be managed so its environmental impact is minimised.'
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