Leading Article: Travel bug makes up for tourism deficit

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Britain is not maintaining its share of the world's largest industry - tourism. A record number (19.2 million) of foreign visitors came here last year, but this country's slice of the global market continued to shrink, and the probably irresistible rise in the proportion of Britons taking their holidays abroad continued, creating a net deficit of pounds 3.1bn.

There are ways in which this could be reduced, but it is hard to see how the palmy pre-Eighties days of steady surplus can be restored. Britain has a great deal to offer overseas visitors in terms of heritage, culture, landscape, language and so on. But it is fighting for its share of a growing and increasingly competitive international market. Countries like Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia and many in Latin America are getting in on the act, and very successfully.

The British Tourist Authority's chief executive, Anthony Sell, believes that to compete effectively in this global market the British tourist industry must raise the quality of its services. Yesterday he cited the dearth of linguistic skills among hotel staff and shortage of information in foreign languages: obvious points to those who travel, not so obvious to British hoteliers.

For Britons who never spend a summer holiday in their own country, it is the sheer expensiveness of food, accommodation and other facilities that is most off-putting. If one can have a change of culture, more reliable sunshine and much cheaper rooms and meals, why risk staying within these isles?

The national predilection for holidays abroad is bad for the balance of payments, but has its compensations. With growing numbers of Britons visiting continental Europe as a matter of course, and long-haul destinations with growing frequency, the travel bug is producing a generation of young Britons far less insular and far more worldly than their parents.