British travellers are soon to benefit from a new fast track to New Zealand's South Island - so long as they make it through US formalities in time.

Down Under faster

British travellers are soon to benefit from a new fast track to New Zealand's South Island - so long as they make it through US formalities in time. Air New Zealand (0800 028 4129, www.airnz.co.nz) is switching three of its 17 weekly Los Angeles-Auckland flights to serve Christchurch, the largest city on South Island.

The new route will offer UK travellers bound for South Island a one-stop trip, but the scheduling for the connection looks tight. Outbound, the daily Heathrow-Los Angeles service on Air New Zealand is scheduled to arrive in California at 7.30pm, local time. The connection to Christchurch leaves 75 minutes later. But American homeland security rules mean that every passenger must pass through US immigration, collect their baggage and proceed through customs, then undergo a security search before boarding the onward flight. Coming home, there is a four-and-a-half hour gap between inbound arrival and outbound departure.

Fares to Christchurch are "common-rated" with those to Auckland, and open-jaws are allowed at no extra charge. In other words, you can fly out to Christchurch and back from Auckland for no more than the normal fare for a London-Auckland return.

Star dispute settled

A long-running argument in British tourism appears to have been settled. From 2006, the UK could have a common system for grading hotels. At present, hotels in Scotland and Wales are awarded stars on different criteria from those used in England. In addition, the AA and RAC operate separate grading systems that can mean a single Welsh or Scottish hotel having two quite different star ratings. For example, the Hotel Portmeirion, which achieved fame as the location for The Prisoner, scores five Wales Tourist Board stars but only three on the AA's classification.

The discrepancy arose five years ago, when the English Tourism Council, the AA and the RAC agreed a common rating scheme. The Government had hoped that the system would apply across Britain. But hotels in Wales and Scotland tend to be smaller and have fewer facilities, and proprietors feared that they would be marked down by the national scheme.

As a result, the tourist boards for Wales and Scotland set up their own schemes, with a greater emphasis on a subjective assessment of quality. Tourists crossing from England into either country find that the criteria for a five-star hotel are dramatically different.

A nationwide scheme is being established by the Quality Review Group, set up by the Department for Culture Media and Sport. One of its members is David Stanbridge, Head of Quality for VisitBritain. He said: "The new scheme will push up quality and give the standards more credibility in the eyes of the consumer."

It appears that tourism chiefs in Wales and Scotland have made some concessions in order to agree a standardised system. Pilot grading exercises are to begin soon, though the precise criteria to be judged have yet to be settled.

The Ty'n Rhos Country House hotel, near Caernarfon, has four Wales Tourist Board stars and two AA/RAC stars. The proprietor, Nigel Kettle, said, "It must be very confusing for people," but conceded that to lose stars under a standardised scheme "would be a little bit upsetting".

The rapid growth of budget hotels in Britain has been recognised by the Quality Review Group. A new category, with the no-frills title "Travel Accommodation", has been introduced, to rate "effectiveness for the short-stay, business visitor".

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