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Tourism minister urges British travellers: Why can't you be more like the Germans?

The national pastime of ridiculing the holiday habits of Germans was under threat last night after a government minister claimed that the Teutonic tourist had become a role model for the British traveller.

The national pastime of ridiculing the holiday habits of Germans was under threat last night after a government minister claimed that the Teutonic tourist had become a role model for the British traveller.

Kim Howells, the Tourism minister, ruined a generation of sun-lounger jokes by saying British holidaymakers should change their ways to copy the Germans. He said that in Germany the travelling public looked beyond the seaside package trip and supported their domestic tourist industry.

As the first of a record-breaking 1.8 million people prepared to head abroad for Easter yesterday Mr Howells said: "In Germany, people take roughly the same numbers of holidays in Spain that British people do but they complement that with a second holiday in Germany. And that's what we've got to aim at."

Mr Howells set out his plans for revitalising the British tourist industry, largely by tempting more Britons to holiday at home than head for Orlando, Ibiza or the Dordogne. Industry experts said the ideas were "crazy" and out of touch with commercial reality.

Germans typically enjoy six weeks' holiday a year – compared with four in the UK – as well as putting in substantially shorter hours when they are at work. But Mr Howells, who has previously drawn criticism for his withering appraisal of this country's "rotting" holiday facilities, argues passionately that just as the Germans ramble in the Black Forest and wallow in algae at Baltic health spas, so more Britons should be tramping across Dartmoor and taking the waters at Skegness or Morecambe.

"I believe that travel agents should understand there is a huge untapped market for British people to take more holidays within Britain," said Mr Howells. According to him, the domestic tourist trade is already starting to recover from the combined calamities of foot-and-mouth and the 11 September attacks. Last year, there were 2.6 million trips made to English resorts and attractions, with visitors spending about £400m.

But the uncertainty created by the war in Iraq, the ongoing threat of terrorist attack and the downturn in the global economy are likely to cut the number of visitors choosing to spend their leisure time in Britain. And low-budget airlines increasingly offer more glamorous and less expensive destinations abroad.

So next week, on St George's Day, Mr Howells will launch a £4m campaign to encourage people to holiday in England. One of its aims will be to encourage both foreigners and British holidaymakers to head out of London and explore the rest of the country. The minister is convinced that the capital has an unhealthy dominance of the British tourist map.

While many of Britain's great industrial cities – Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow – have been transformed into centres of culture and entertainment, they remain outside the consciousness of many tourists, especially those from overseas whose knowledge of Britain is often confined to images of London landmarks such as Nelson's Column and Big Ben.

Mr Howells said: "The big problem we have got is how you get people out of London. It is by far the most potent icon in British tourism." The minister said that attractions such as Buckingham Palace and the Household Cavalry should be used to lure visitors to provincial cities and the regions as part of "gateway" packages.

"It would be hugely beneficial to the regions of Britain where very few foreign tourists go to at the moment," he said.

London receives 11 million overseas visitors a year (plus 17 million from other parts of the UK), compared with just one million foreign tourists for the whole of Scotland and Wales combined (plus 19 million from the UK), said Howells.

But the idea that London should encourage some of its visitors to head out of town set alarm bells ringing in the capital, where the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has just launched a new tourist drive.

Justine Lovatt, economist at the London Chamber of Commerce, said: "We are concerned about the low tourist numbers in London at the moment because of the effects of the war. It is having quite a negative effect on the retail sector."

Mr Howells, though, is convinced the "gateway" strategy can benefit London too, by tempting North American visitors, who he thinks might regard a trip up the M1 to Bradford's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television as a mere jaunt.

The minister believes that unless tourists are tempted away from London and the other heavily visited places such as Cambridge, there will be long-term damage to the sites of interest themselves.

"You've got to get them out [of London]. Spread them around a bit," he said. "It's the only way you will get sustainable tourism – otherwise it's millions of feet wearing out the best tourist attractions."

He is frustrated by the reluctance of southerners to explore the north and the regions and wants Britons who choose weekend breaks to consider domestic destinations such as Liverpool or Birmingham instead of Lisbon and Bologna.

Mr Howells realises there is plenty of marketing work still to do. "What we've got to do is add a little more glamour and panache to the home-grown product," he said. "We've never sold ourselves particularly well."

Mr Howells points to a reference in the Lonely Planet guide describing Britain as "one of the most beautiful islands on earth" but tourists wooed by pictures of pageantry may be unimpressed with a visit that is less about Beefeaters and more about Happy Eaters.

The minister admitted last October he had been shocked by the standard of facilities at some English holiday centres. "I was in resorts in the east of England this summer that were rotting from the ground up," he told a meeting in Brighton. "And full of creepy pubs."

According to Phil Davies, editor of Travel Trade Gazette, the problems with the British tourist industry are widely known. He said: "In the UK there are a number of issues. Not least the quality of accommodation, the price, the levels of service ..." Mr Davies said it was "crazy" to think British tourists would forgo the guarantee of good weather abroad to book a stay at a domestic resort.

A tale of two countries: Holidays on home ground

The German experience

Munich, Germany's Bavarian capital, has museums, galleries, churches and 11 notable theatres, as well as the bohemian Schwabing district. The Oktoberfest has become a must-do stop on the international backpacker circuit, but aficionados insist it is more than just the world's biggest drinking session. The Central Marienplatz is home to street artists and musicians and the city hosts a renowned contemporary music festival. A night at the three-star Hotel Herzog Wilhelm costs up to £117.

Adolf Hitler, keen to reward workers with a seaside break, built a three-mile development at Prora on the Baltic island of Rügen. After the war the Soviet authorities liked Albert Speer's idea of a resort for 20,000 people and completed the project, then in Communist East Germany. The island now has conventional attractions, long beaches, promenades and piers. A stay at a camp site will cost £5, while health spas can reach £100 a night.

Despite heavy damage from acid rain, the Black Forest's popularity as a destination for Germany's holidaymakers remains undimmed. In the winter, cross-country skiing is popular, while in summer the paths among the pine woods come alive with walkers and cyclists, the lakes fill with sails and the balconies of the cabins cascade with red geraniums. Nearby Baden-Baden trades on its spas and cuckoo clocks. Ten days' bed-and-breakfast at a country hotel can cost as little as £300.

Oberstdorf, high in the Bavarian Alps, has been called the king of European gastro-skiing, boasting more than 140 restaurants. Over-indulgence in würst can be worked off on 44,000 metres of downhill slopes, including a run of 7.5km (4.6 miles). A ski pass giving access to the area's 31 lifts and that of some in adjacent Austria costs about £100 a week. Beds can be had for just £15 a night in local wooden chalets. The weather report yesterday was: "Sun. Another glorious day."

The British experience

Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of the Bard, is the cultural jewel in the crown of the Heart of England. Set amid rolling countryside, it boasts a real taste of Olde Worlde charm as well as enjoying good transport links, although the M6 is not to be taken lightly. The Royal Shakespeare Company presents year-round plays, workshops and lectures. A weekend night at the Thistle Hotel will cost £45 per person while seats for The Taming of the Shrew this year cost between £14 and £40 each.

Skegness, the bracing Lincolnshire home of Billy Butlin's first holiday resort, was once a favourite for its sandy beaches and fairground rides. Now its name often suggests dreary monochrome, in skies and facilities; Kim Howells, pictured left, has described east coast resorts as "rotting from the ground up". Yet the town's beaches have won awards, and Butlins is bringing Skeggy up to date with summer dates for the garage stars Asher D and Romeo, from only £7.25 per night.

Snowdon rises to 1,085 metres (3,559ft) and attracts about 500,000 visitors a year, many of whom take the easy way to the top via the Victorian funicular railway. There are more than 840 sq. miles of paths to avoid the hordes although there is no escape from the notoriously fickle Welsh weather. Nearby attractions include Sir Clough Williams-Ellis's experimental village, Portmeirion, below, built between 1925 and 1975.

The Nevis range has 35 downhill runs including one of 2 kilometres, all offering spectacular views of the Scottish glens. Mountain gondolas run all year round and offer access to the mountain of Aonach Mor. It also offers facilities for snowboarders. Ski passes cost £22 a day or £99 for the week. The resort is a modern purpose-built facility, while the town of Fort William is close to hand with pubs and accommodation. The Highlands can suffer from grey skies, a shortage of snow and an excess of cold, which can lead to the sensation of skiing over gravel rather than on virgin powder.