The spectacle of pickled ant eaters and rats piled into glass jars was held up yesterday as an example of how Britain's tourism industry is emerging leaner and fitter from the upheavals in the international travel market.
The Natural History Museum in London, which displays in the newly opened Darwin Centre some of its stock of 22 million animal specimens suspended in alcohol, was named as the best large visitor attraction in the annual awards for the capital's tourism trade.
Figures released this month showed that despite a record number of visitors to Britain, spending from abroad this year had fallen by 2 per cent to £4.8bn as high-spending Americans continued to stay away.
Tourism chiefs said the straitened times, initially caused by foot-and-mouth and compounded by the 11 September attacks and war in Iraq, had forced museums and businesses to work harder to improve and diversify their service. David Campbell, the chief executive of Visit London, which oversees the London Tourism Awards, said: "Everyone has had to sharpen their act. They have had to be competitive in order to survive and succeed. A good example is the Natural History Museum, where they have a new facility that is drawing in visitors but they are also being responsive to customers, finding out what they want and enjoy."
With tourist numbers from America and Canada down by 11 per cent over the past year, managers of hotels, restaurants and attractions in London are relying on increased visits from the Continent and elsewhere in Britain. Numbers from western Europe have risen by 5 per cent while visits to England from within Britain rose last year to 135 million with spending of £21bn.
The Natural History Museum in South Kensington had just under three million visitors last year when it opened the Darwin Centre, an increase of about 9 per cent on 2001. The centre allows visitors to meet the 300 scientists who normally work behind the scenes.
The awards also brought recognition for a few of London's off-beat treasures. Borough market in south London, which has become a magnet for gourmets, was voted leading attraction by Londoners.
LONDON TOURISM AWARDS THE WINNERS
Best large visitor attraction:
Natural History Museum
Best small visitor attraction:
Apsley House - the London home of the first Duke of Wellington
Best large hotel:
The Landmark, Marylebone
Best small hotel:
Capital Hotel, Knightsbridge
Best bed and breakfast:
The Windermere Hotel, Victoria
Best sightseeing tour:
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