Tourist body fights to keep symbols of Britain: Government criticised for its lack of understanding. Frank Barrett reports

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THE British Tourist Authority launched a furious attack yesterday on the Government's 'lack of understanding' towards tourism.

Among government actions condemned by the BTA are the new levy on air travel announced in Tuesday's Budget, rail and bus privatisation, deregulation of London taxis, the delay in building a high- speed rail link into London from the Channel tunnel, a rate of VAT on tourist services higher than other European countries, and a threat to tourist symbols.

Speaking in London yesterday, Antony Sell, chief executive of the BTA, said that the authority would be joining UK airlines and tour operators in opposing the plans for an air levy. 'We were not consulted on the plan, which we think is another potential disincentive for inbound tourism. If this levy is introduced, our fear is that it will lead to further taxes on tourism in the future - who knows where it will end? I don't think the Government has realised the impact,' he said.

Outlining the BTA's Guidelines for Tourism to Britain 1993-97, Mr Sell said that the authority needed the Government to give inbound tourism greater recognition. Last year, tourism accounted for about 4.5 per cent of Britain's gross domestic product, providing about 1.5 million jobs.

The BTA claims that, by 1997, Britain could attract 24 million overseas visitors spending pounds 11bn, compared with 1992 figures which showed Britain received 18.5 million visitors spending pounds 7.89bn.

However, the growth in business will only be achieved, the BTA said, if the Government encourages the tourism industry. In particular, Mr Sell highlighted the threat to 'the symbols of London: the red bus and the black cab' - both of which could disappear under bus privatisation and London taxi deregulation. The BTA is also worried that rail privatisation will lead to the ending of network passes, rover tickets and London travelcards, all of which are used by the 9 million overseas tourists.

Defence cuts, which have led to a reduction in the frequency of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, were criticised by Mr Sell. He was also worried about the effect that motorway charges might have: 'It is essential that the implications for tourism of a new charging regime should be fully thought through and not be detrimental to the industry.'

Mr Sell, who was recently appointed chief executive after serving in Paris as managing director of Thomas Cook's business in continental Europe, said that the Government had to be made to realise that tourism in Britain was in competition with countries such as France, Spain and Italy. 'If we do anything to make Britain less attractive then these other countries will benefit.'

The BTA also plans to lobby the Government on reforms in other areas. 'Visitor numbers could also fall unless social reforms are introduced in areas like Sunday trading, pub licensing hours and provision of fixed-price menus in restaurants.' Mr Sell said that 'outmoded' licensing laws in England and Wales restrict choice and lose business. 'Visitors find pubs closed on Sunday afternoons, and their children are barred from most licensed premises.'