Leading Article: Let's hear it for the makers of the British buzz

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"There is a considerable buzz about Britain now" says the national tourism quango as it announces record numbers of visits from overseas. But is it the sound of a fat bumblebee flitting round the bustles and topboots of Heritage Country or the urgent microphone rasp of Jarvis Cocker singing of something Miss Emma Woodhouse would have associated only with the most vulgar and unAnglican of religious experiences? Modern British tourism is poised - like national identity at century's end - between two worlds. Beefeaters or Oasis; Ann Hathaway or the fashion gurus Pearce Fionda.

The Americans, the Japanese and perhaps also the growing numbers of Taiwanese (an interesting reflection of that island's growing wealth and internationalism) probably still come for the olde shoppes, Stonehenge, Hampton Court and the Royal Mile - Britain as pageant, living history, island theme park. In Kansas City, as in Osaka, Britain lives still in the public's imagination as Jane Austen country or, in the Scottish variant, the land of kilted figures looking like a cross between Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson. In such a country soldiers should, as they do, dress up in busbies and parade outside Horse Guards as if George II were still on the throne, the cottages should be thatched and the castle moats deep. It is a form of what the economists call comparative advantage: we are good at doing the past and it would be foolish to throw away the yen, especially since we are unlikely to earn them from sales of machine tools.

A few years back cultural commentators of left and right got themselves into a rather silly tangle over whether Heritage was a Good Thing. Some argued that half-timbering was a kind of moral disease and the view from the battlements always backward. Others seemed at times to be arguing that if we all started to dress up in smocks and armour and stand at the entrance to Arundel or Culzean Castle we would never have to worry about deindustrialisation again. Thankfully we seem to have got over that debate - partly because ancient and modern can never really be dissociated in some neat way. And what do we make of Sense and Sensibility, financed from the United States, directed by a Taiwanese, starring British actors that makes a lot of money worldwide and serves to boost tourism to Devon?

What thwarts the doomsters is the sinuousness, the unpredictability of culture. Tourism is clearly big business and a growing source of employment, but trying to plan for it is usually fatal. We certainly need to protect precious sites such as Avebury and the Abbey; the City of Glasgow has done wonders in plotting the cult of Rennie Mackintosh. But tourism is increasingly also a product of imagination and, among younger people, a response to a sense of what and where is new, exciting, cutting edge.

Tourism in Britain is up. More foreigners want to come and visit these shores despite London's capacity to offer urban crime of a frighteningly American kind, as a poor tourist found out near King's Cross the other night. Equally more of us are visiting them. There is a lot more tourism throughout the world and since the number of destinations is limited, you would expect Britain automatically to attract a growing share, even if there was nothing special to see or do here. But there is - like being free and even a little anarchic. To Singaporean youth (the target for some recent British Tourist Authority promotion) dropping litter in the street without fear of being keelhauled could be one of this country's greatest attractions. The Netherlands are already free but judging by the headgear sported by numbers of Dutch visitors, perhaps Britain has an ultimate liberty - it is a place you can get away with wearing funny hats in public.

Just why numbers are up can only be guessed at. It seems more are repeat visitors and they must be returning to do more than revisit Madame Tussaud's or the Tower. Britain's attractions may have, in part, to do with the Spender phenomenon. If in a television series you project a rather glamorous character against an urban backdrop, the physical surroundings (Newcastle upon Tyne) acquire a new aura of interest and excitement - which is the reason the city fathers and mothers of Birmingham and Leeds have thought about bribing screenwriters to plant detectives or hospital doctors in their fictional midst.

People abroad are seeing or hearing an exciting Britain and want to visit. The association of London and cultural modernity is not new. From Peter the Great hanging out in the pubs of Deptford to young Danes threading the Soho maze to find Carnaby Street in the Sixties, London has, off and on, been where it is at. And, says the British Tourist Authority, it is once again stylish, contemporary and vibrant. They come, in their millions, for Camden Lock in north London but also - officialdom is reticent on this - for semi-forbidden pleasures in clubs and pubs.

Not only London will benefit from this association of Britain and the frontier of what is permitted, of what is to be experienced. How many young people are likely to set a course for Leith after seeing Trainspotting? In a just world Irvine Welsh would find himself being offered a civic banquet for his part in boosting Edinburgh tourist revenues.

But the fact is, still, the businessman who makes the widget gets the accolade much quicker than the maker of culture who creates the buzz. Popular singers sometimes get their gongs, true, and prime ministers and opposition leaders do find time in their diaries to fete knickerless dress designers. But a gulf persists between the British culture that foreigners find attractive and what gets recognised as significant and meritorious. There will probably have to be better alignment between the two if the visitors are to keep coming and spending.