Leading Article: Making happy customers of Britain's tourists

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HERE IS an August holiday puzzle. The British Isles are small, rainy and windswept, famous neither for the quality of their native cuisine nor for the friendly welcome their inhabitants give to visitors. Yet while British tourists take more holidays abroad, the UK remains extraordinarily attractive to foreigners. By some measures it is the world's fifth most popular tourist destination, and its tourist industry accounts for 4.5 per cent of national income and one job in 16.

A contradiction? Perhaps not. Many factors influence people's choice of where to go, of which weather, cuisine and quality of service are only three. Britain's assets are enviable: its wild and beautiful open spaces, well-preserved cathedral towns and historic villages, and its charming country houses and gardens. As for its capital, New York, Paris and Tokyo each could claim superiority in shopping, museums or theatres, but none has the edge in all three.

Given the importance of tourism to the British economy, the Government's decision to cut 40 per cent of the English Tourist Board's budget over the next three years is puzzling. Earlier this year, William Davis resigned as the board's chairman, disgruntled by ministerial deafness to pleas for more money, and frustrated by the public sector bureaucracy. His successor, Adele Biss, has launched a quixotic campaign to reverse the cuts; yet even if the Department of National Heritage wanted to give the tourist board more money, it would probably be unable to win the necessary funds.

Ms Biss has some strong arguments. Other countries are willing to spend lavishly on advertising their charms abroad; in this year alone, Spain, Israel and France have all been extensively promoted in Britain. If such campaigns are not paid for by taxpayers, they must be financed through levies on the tourist industry, which would require a reversal of the Government's policy of reducing red tape in the industry.

But the fate of British tourism will depend not only on the fortunes of the English Tourist Board. Even insiders recognise that there are too many duplications between work done by the board and by the umbrella British Tourist Authority. And as Ms Biss must know from her public relations experience, word of mouth can count for more than even the slickest brochures. Rather than rely on a strategy planned from the centre - an approach that has proved disastrous in many developing countries - Britain would do well to look at the many tiny improvements that could help to make the country more attractive.

Immigration officers might be less haughty. Historic city centres might be more attractive to pedestrians if they admitted fewer cars. British Rail might welcome cyclists, rather than harrying them. The National Portrait Gallery might publish a guide book in a foreign language. And Buckingham Palace, which opens its doors to the public on Saturday, might reconsider its difficult queuing arrangements. Let us milk our tourists as best we can; good business, however, requires that we should first make them comfortable.