With all the visitors expected in Britain for the Queen's Jubilee and then for the Olympics, you might ask, as I did when I passed its boarded-up shell recently, why one of London's major tourist information offices has been closed. The answer, from the government-funded agency, VisitBritain, is that strategy has been refocused towards drawing tourists from abroad (and away from welcoming them once they are here).
What this means, in my small example, is that a large West End office has shut, and the closest equivalent – according to a scrappy notice on the door – is by St Paul's Cathedral (a bus ride away). The field has thus been left to commercial concerns, and the profit-motive, which doesn't seem to me to do the job.
Almost anywhere on the Continent, or indeed in the US, will have at least one tourist office, perhaps doubling as the chamber of commerce, whose prime function is not to milk visitors for their money, at least not directly, but to dispense information and be welcoming. Most such offices occupy central sites, or prominent positions in airports and railway stations. The staff, whether employees, or – as often in the US – volunteers, know their stuff and are mostly efficient or enthusiastic (often both). Where are these offices here?
Not so long ago, I was in Manchester, which has an exemplary city-centre tourist office. But unless, by some miracle, you chance upon it in your wanderings, you may not find it when you need it – such as, when you've just arrived. I needed to catch a local bus to my destination; I knew which number, but not where to find it. To someone unfamiliar with the city, the maps were singularly unhelpful. Nor was there an office at Manchester Piccadilly – the main station – that offers this, or other non-train information. You can find out how to get out of Manchester, once you have arrived, but not how to orientate, or even enjoy yourself, once there. The only brochures I could find were for day trips to London.
Back in 2003, a huge fuss surrounded the appointment of an expatriate American, Barbara Cassani, to chair London's 2012 Olympic bid. She resigned after the draft plan displeased the IOC. And maybe it wasn't the best idea to have a foreigner front your Olympic bid. But the thinking may not have been completely wrong. Our reception of visitors could be greatly improved if those providing the services concentrated less on marketing, which they understand all too well, but on what it's like to arrive somewhere and know nothing – not even where to board the bus. There needs to be something like an alien test of approachability; at very least, an outsider on the tourist board.
Just try talking to your taxman
Once upon a time, my tax statement – and yours, I assume – came with the name and direct number of a tax officer, who could invariably answer my query. I only noticed that HM Revenue and Customs had gone the way of automated perdition when I tried to contact them recently.
No name or number now, just a call centre replaying muzak and fatuous messages. You're livid before you've spoken.
Multiply my experience (three calls, two long waits, two wrong answers) by the number of taxpayers with queries, and a vast amount of time is being wasted – though much more of yours than theirs. If they want to contact you, I bet they can do so in a trice. Access should be reciprocal. How about evening the odds?