Leading Article: The jewel in the crown of Britain's tourist industry

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The Independent Online
THE OPENING of Buckingham Palace to tourists would have been a grand gesture a few years ago. It would have signalled the Queen's acceptance that it was no longer appropriate or possible to preserve the mystique of the monarchy behind closed doors, that even her private property was in some sense the nation's and should be shared, and that, if she could not in modern conditions make her person more accessible to her subjects, she could at least allow them access to her treasures.

Instead, the message of Thursday's announcement is that the Queen wants to raise money to contribute towards the restoration of Windsor Castle, her loyal subjects having proved unwilling to do so either as taxpayers or directly to the trust fund that was set up. They signalled clearly that their support for the monarchy was limited and qualified. As so often when funds fail in this country, Americans, Japanese and other foreigners will be reaching into their pockets to make up any shortfall. In itself, there is nothing wrong with that. If tourists wish to visit the palace, they will not object to paying. They will be buying back some of the splendour of Windsor Castle, which is also a tourist attraction, and at the same time covering the costs of making the palace safe for - and from - tourists.

They will also be performing another function. As they crowd the great halls, they will be trampling further on Britain's already dwindling dream of a monarchy above and apart from the rest of society, representing the continuity, wholeness and collective virtue of the nation. They will be there not because the Queen wants them, but because she has decided to turn herself into a modern entrepreneur and exploit her assets to raise money. Long accustomed to being a part of the tourist industry, she has now formally acknowledged this role, taking her place among the cathedrals, stately homes and model villages in the queue for customers. The only cause for regret is that earlier opportunities were missed. In every other respect, the decision is welcome. It shows realism; it brings the monarchy another step nearer contemporary reality; it will help to rescue Windsor Castle; and it will earn foreign currency for the balance of payments.

Buckingham Palace has the potential to become a major tourist attraction. It is just what many tourists want to see - a relic of past glory that is also impressive in its own right. Better still, it is in the heart of London. But its success will depend on how it is handled. Much of Britain's heritage is shockingly badly presented, either preserved amid shops selling baskets and herbal bath salts or surrounded by tatty souvenir stalls, squalid snack bars and filthy lavatories. Very seldom are there decent basic facilities. Even less frequent is adequate information for tourists with a genuine interest in what they are viewing - and there are more of these than is often assumed. The Tower of London is a disgrace, Stonehenge a disaster, Oxford a grudging muddle. Other examples are plentiful.

Considering that tourism contributes some pounds 25bn a year to Britain's economy, the Government's fumbling and inconsistent attitude to the investment that would be necessary to produce still higher earnings shows an absymal lack of vision. The angry departure in March of William Davis as chairman of the British Tourist Authority should provoke new thinking. For all his faults and abrasive character, he tried to make the Government take the issue seriously.

Buckingham Palace seems unlikely to allow itself to be surrounded by squalor, or to turn itself into a theme park with waxworks or costumed actors - although Americans might appreciate a chance to meet George III and ask him about the colonies. More probable is that it will be too lofty and uncompromising, regarding the visitors as distasteful intruders who are expected to be sufficiently grateful merely for the chance to tread the Queen's red carpets. The notion that they should also receive information and lavatories, perhaps even food, may be too much for the guardians of the royal mystique. For the proposed admission price, this attitude would rightly be resented.

Fortunately, there is at least some talk of managing traffic so that people can reach the palace without risking death, but a great deal more thought will have to be given to receiving visitors with the care they will expect. The Queen's decision provides an opportunity to do something well in the tourist industry and thereby set an example for other attractions to follow. If the chance is taken, it could bring new hope - and more money - to the rest of the industry.