Simon Calder's Travel Column

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The Independent Travel
This week, Virginia Bottomley has told me lots about travel. It is encouraging that politicians are at last taking the industry seriously, but I find some of her comments curious. On Wednesday, the Department of National Heritage sent out a press release boasting of record earnings from foreign visitors to Britain. One reason, claimed the heritage secretary, was the Lottery's generous award of "pounds 11.9 billion to expand the National Portrait Gallery".

A quick calculation shows that pounds 12bn would buy an awful lot of stolen Picassos, and would indeed help to "ensure London's continued and universal appeal". But the amount that the National Lottery actually promised to give the gallery was a more modest pounds 11.9m.

Misprints are easier to forgive than misrepresentations. The thrust of the press release is that more overseas visitors are coming to Britain, and that they are spending more. But when you get the raw data from the Office for National Statistics, you discover something odd: that while the total number of visitors is at an all-time record, the average individual is actually spending less. In 1995 a typical tourist spent pounds 503 in Britain; by last year the mean spend had fallen to pounds 487.

Worse still for the UK economy, the travel deficit is accelerating alarmingly: we spend much more abroad than we earn from tourism, and the gap is widening. Every day in 1995, British tourists spent pounds 10m more abroad than we earned. Last year that figure rose by 11 per cent. While we splash out on foreign travel, inbound visitors are inclined to spend less.

Why could this be? Another missive I received this week suggested that there is "a fundamental threat to every tourist business up and down the country". Before reading the rest of the press release, I pondered some possible causes for a continuing decline in visitor spend.

Just a couple of plausible candidates from yesterday's headlines: the prospect of a long, unhappy train journey from the capital to Windsor or Winchester, because of the wholesale cancellation of non-commuter services by South West Trains. Or the postponement by a year of the completion of the Jubilee Line, the construction of which around Westminster has wrecked every tourist's photographs of Big Ben over the past three years.

No: the real threat, it turns out, is Labour's "tourist tax". The despatch is another one from Mrs Bottomley, writing this time from Conservative Central Office.

In a speech to Britain's hoteliers in London, she explained that she is not referring to an actual tax (unlike, for example, Air Passenger Duty which is set to double in November; this will be a pounds 20 levy on every non-EU tourist leaving the country by air). In fact, Mrs Bottomley is referring to "Labour's slavish ideological support for the European Social Chapter and Minimum Wage", which will "cost one million jobs". So now you know.

No one in the travel industry was especially surprised when Sunvil Holidays was voted one of Britain's best tour operators by readers of Which? magazine. The company runs high-quality holidays to diverse destinations, including Crete and Costa Rica. But Sunvil's managing director, Noel Josephides, is surprising plenty of people with his pronouncements on staff and customers.

Mr Josephides has a weekly column in the travel trade newspaper Travel Weekly. His views, always stimulating, are sometimes downright controversial. Last year he surprised an industry in which a high proportion of employees are female by saying that companies should have the right to sack workers who become pregnant.

Now his target is the travelling public. In a story about the marketing tactics employed by large tour operators, he writes: "Don't forget, the public is not very bright."

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