Bad weather and strong pound hit tourism

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Tourism to the UK dipped in the crucial weeks of August this year, according to official figures showing the number of overseas visits "flatlining" during the first eight months of 2007.

Foreign residents took 3.24 million trips to Britain in August compared with 3.70 million in the same month last year, the Office for National Statistics said.

The dismal British summer this year - which began with a series of floods -is thought to have contributed to the slump in tourists, along with the recent strength of the pound against the dollar and other currencies.

Visits by North Americans, in particular, fell from 495,000 in August 2006 to 450,000 in August this year.

Overseas visitors spent less in August this year, the figures show. £1.77bn was spent during foreign trips here in the month compared with £1.84bn in August 2006. However, spending by overseas visitors in the UK for the first eight months of this year is up 2 per cent at £10.68bn.

Overall, tourism between January and the beginning of September remained flat at 22.05 million, while North American visitor numbers in January to August this year have fallen 5 per cent, to 3.14 million.

News of the dip comes as the national organisation VisitBritain warned that the UK is losing out to rival countries for tourism and could lose more than £2m in potential visits for the London Olympic games in 2012. The VisitBritain chairman, Christopher Rodrigues, said the Government had to invest more in tourism, especially in preparation for the "once in a lifetime opportunity" the games offer the industry.

"VisitBritain has had its Government grant-in-aid budget frozen for the past 12 years, which has led to significant cuts in real terms," Mr Rodrigues said. "With London hosting the 2012 Games, our industry has a fantastic opportunity to attract millions of additional visitors, before, during and after all the sporting events."

He said research showed that, if properly marketed, Britain could attract an additional £2.10bn of tourism spend from the Olympic Games, a large portion of which will find its way into the Treasury's coffers.

Mr Rodrigues said: "Much of the work will be done by the industry, but we need funds to prime the pump for marketing Britain overseas. After 12 years of flat budgets and rationalisation, it is unrealistic to expect this once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity to come out of our hard-pressed resources that are fully deployed elsewhere."

Meanwhile, the ONS statistics show that fewer Brits visited foreign countries in August this year, but spent more compared to 2006. UK residents made 8.32 million trips overseas in August 2007, spending £4.52bn, compared with 8.29 million trips in August 2006 in which £4.47bn was spent.

Mr Rodrigues said: "The growth of Britain's inbound tourism industry is increasingly dependent on visitors from countries like China, the Czech Republic, India and Poland. The Government must continue to invest in marketing Britain as a destination in traditionally high-spending countries where Britain is in danger of losing its 'brag factor'."

He added: "Investing in our success will also help tourism generate a £2.1bn return for the whole country from the Olympic Games. It will help us to promote not only arts and cultural attractions which benefit from Government support, but also the smaller attractions, museums and galleries, and accommodation providers that don't, to a millions-strong global audience."

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for culture, media and sport, blamed an "appalling" record on behalf of the Government for the figures. "The Government seems determined to squander the tourism benefits the London Olympics could bring," he said. "Not only did [the Government] repeatedly delay the publication of their tourism strategy, but they've failed to provide sufficient funding to ensure it is a success.

"Labour's record on tourism over the past 10 years has been appalling. It has slashed VisitBritain's budget and turned the role of chair... into a part-time job. If we're to capitalise fully on the tourism potential of the 2012 Games, then we must make sure that the tourism industry has the support and leadership it is crying out for."