Britain's hole in its tourism account deepened this week, with the latest figures revealing a four per cent drop in both the number of visitors and the amount they spend. We spend far more on holidays abroad than we receive from overseas visitors to the UK - a deficit of about pounds 10m a day. The last government chose an unusual way to try to promote tourism in Britain: cutting funding for the BTA, which seeks to entice visitors to the UK.
Under the new government, an equally perverse course has been chosen: closing down the tourist information centre at Gatwick airport. From the end of September, Britain's second busiest gateway will become even less welcoming to overseas visitors.
The closure of the bureau speaks volumes about the muddle surrounding tourism promotion in Britain. Tom Clarke, the minister responsible for tourism, did not take the decision to shut the office himself. Neither did the BTA. "It wasn't our decision," says the English Tourist Board. Gatwick airport itself was not responsible; indeed, the airport provides the site free. Finally, I tracked down the man who pulled the plug: Fred Cubbage, leader of a shadowy group in Tunbridge Wells called the South East England Tourism Board.
Mr Cubbage turns out to be a reasonable man. He says his decision was taken "with the utmost regret", but says his organisation could not afford to meet the pounds 1,000-a-week cost of the service. And, with fewer than one in 10 inquiries at Gatwick about the patch he covers, why should he blow his budget on the bureau?
The job of the SEETB -slogan, "England's warmest welcome" -is to promote Kent, Surrey and Sussex: to extol the virtues of East Grinstead and West Hoathly rather than to help people who want to find a train to Torquay or a B&B in Bridlington.
Now the four staff at the airport are to lose their jobs, and new arrivals are to lose the chance of help and guidance. The task of running it, says Mr Cubbage, became "more onerous because of the reduction of central funding". So having followed the trail all the way down to a side street in Tunbridge Wells, it now seems to be leading back to Whitehall and the desk of Mr Clarke, the tourism minister.
A spokeswoman for his office says: "Choices have to be made about the allocation of resources, and this bureau does not represent an efficient use of resources, so unfortunately it has to close."
Countries such as France, Holland and Spain, which offer excellent tourist information bureaux for arriving passengers, must be delighted.
Should you feel strongly enough to complain to the minister about the closure, don't call directory inquiries. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which covers tourism, is unknown to British Telecom. My quest to find the number included the priceless comment: "Oh, culture. I thought you said torture."
After supervisors and managers joined the operator in trying vainly to find the number of the government ministry, BT gave up. By other, more devious means, I discovered the ex-directory number to dial: 0171- 211 6000.