Bank holiday break? It's easier to get to Rome than Pwllheli

'Now, in the 21st century, there are 21 flights each Sunday to Rome - so long as you start in London'

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Newcastle or Bristol: it could be you. The giant US airline Continental is checking out possible destinations for its next new route from New York to the UK. If either airport gains a non-stop link with America's largest city, it will be big news for the regions.

Newcastle or Bristol: it could be you. The giant US airline Continental is checking out possible destinations for its next new route from New York to the UK. If either airport gains a non-stop link with America's largest city, it will be big news for the regions.

The reason? Look no further than the Official Airlines Guide, not the most gripping airport paperback, but as tourism enterprises outside London and the south-east tot up another summer of dismal earnings, its contents will heighten their gloom. The hieroglyphics about flights to and from the UK speak volumes about a Britain that is deeply divided. In terms of international travel and everything that flows from it, the south-east is booming while the rest of the UK travels in its slipstream.

The air-travel disparity is more marked than any other index: even with Concorde grounded, there are more than 30 flights each way, each day, between London's airports and New York. In contrast, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow - collectively representing a population base far greater than the capital - can muster only half a dozen departures between them to America's biggest city.

Why should this matter, except to a plane-spotter keen to select the most promising venue? Because, in the eyes of the rest of the world, the shape of Britain is decided by how easy each part of it is to reach. For the Japanese tourist, the French student learning English, or the billion-dollar multinational seeking a European headquarters, Britain increasingly means London.

The vast majority of visitors land at one of the capital's airports, bestowing it with an instant lead in the tourism stakes. Our conventional image of the assiduous tourist is of someone treading a well-worn trail from London via Windsor to Bath, then heading north: through Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick to Chester or York (with a side-trip to Liverpool for Beatles fans, or to Haworth for Brontë devotees), ending up in Edinburgh.

But when you actually look at the numbers, the south-east is way ahead; Windsor Castle attracts more visitors than its counterpart in the Scottish capital, and Kew Gardens is more of a draw than the Pump Room in Bath.

And this year, London's traditional big-hitters - Madame Tussaud's, the Tower, the British Museum - have been joined by three more. The Dome, the London Eye and Tate Modern have distorted the map of the UK still further, adding to the gravitational pull that makes it tempting for the tourist to venture no further than the capital.

Your cash and mine has in effect subsidised each visit to the Dome to the tune of £100 per person. The Greenwich attraction has failed dismally to meet its visitor targets, but enough money has been thrown at promoting the place to make it the nation's most popular tourist draw.

In a move that demonstrates the organisers' desperation to avoid utter ignominy, from tomorrow, the price of tickets sold through agents is to be cut. Many of these cheap tickets will be bought by tourists, perhaps giving them "One Amazing Day", but certainly reducing by 24 hours the time available to explore the rest of Britain.

The real success stories of the summer are, like the Dome, both on the South Bank of the Thames, but they have the dual advantages of being (a) in central London and (b) good fun. British Airways may be disappointed that its BA London Eye is universally known as the Millennium Wheel, yet the two million visitors who have orbited in the first six months of opening will compensate, as will the satisfaction of adding so dramatically to the capital's skyline.

A couple of rotations away along the riverside, Tate Modern has shown what imagination, ingenuity and the odd £150m can add to the capital's critical mass. Every day, Eurostar trains from Paris and Brussels deposit 10,000 people at Waterloo, London SE1; increasingly, they are barely straying beyond that postal area. The new Rosie Tate's sandwich bar is doing great business, while the rest of Britain looks on hungrily.

The decision to build the Dome in London, to pour £750m into a region already stuffed with attractions, will come to be regarded as one of Westminster's greatest ever insults to the rest of Britain. However, as too many misconceived projects in the regions have demonstrated, millions in lottery money don't guarantee success.

Take Sheffield: the National Centre for Popular Music was bailed out by the Arts Council, having attracted neither critical acclaim nor visitors. We can't even create a decent attraction that reflects the fact that the north of England is the world centre of pop. Add David Blunkett's comments in a newspaper article yesterday, in which the Education Secretary and MP for Sheffield Brightside described walking in the countryside around Sheffield and finding "under my feet used drink cans or plastic supermarket bags" and you can understand why not too many tourists are fighting for flights to the steel city's shiny new airport.

The fact that you can fly there only from Belfast, Brussels and Dublin might have something to do with it, too. The increased propensity of foreign visitors to remain in London would not matter if the cash-rich, time-poor residents of the south-east elected to spend their weekends visiting the rest of Britain. But it's not easy. Five years ago this autumn, a momentous event took place: the first easyJet flight. You can reach nearly 100 European airports on no-frills flights from Luton or Stansted; and they also provide inbound visitors with easy access to London. But outside the south-east, only Liverpool, with seven destinations, and Prestwick, with two, even register on the no-frills radar.

The travel industry has re-drawn our view of the world. It used to be said that three journeys to the island of Bardsey, off the Lleyn Peninsula in north Wales, were worth one journey to Rome. Last weekend I tried to reach the island. From London on a Sunday, it takes three trains and eight hours just to get to Pwllheli, the closest station to the boat's departure point.

A storm put paid to the plan to follow in the wake of the ancient pilgrims; I should have gone to the Italian capital instead. In the 21st century, there are 21 flights each Sunday taking worshippers to Rome - so long as you start in London. Newcastle and Bristol? Forget it.

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