<p>Welcome back? A bus at Marble Arch in central London, location for the controversial Mound tourist attraction</p>

Welcome back? A bus at Marble Arch in central London, location for the controversial Mound tourist attraction

Tourism minister defends government policies on visitors to UK

Exclusive: ‘We have a responsibility to be a bit more positive and optimistic about the future of the tourism sector’ says Nigel Huddleston

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 12 October 2021 13:48
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As figures in Britain’s inbound travel industry predict that a downturn in visitor numbers will continue, the tourism minister has said “we can see things moving”.

Nigel Huddleston said: “I’m seeing numbers from 30 per cent to 45 per cent of 2019 numbers.”

In August the UK attracted just 14 per cent of its visitor numbers two years earlier, the worst performance of any major European nation, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – and the government’s response in the shape of onerous quarantine and testing policies.

But the minister said: “The most important thing is it’s going in the right direction, I think with a fair bit of impetus and a momentum now as well.”

He said that the reduction in the UK”s “red list” of countries from 54 to just seven, which took effect on Monday, would be “fantastic for the sector”.

Mr Huddleston was speaking at the Commonwealth Games Business and Tourism Programme Tourism Summit in Birmingham. Ahead of the interview several leading figures working in inbound tourism told The Independent of their fears as the UK emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

Neil Wootton, chief executive of Premium Tours, said: “I often hear comments of a bumper year next year with so much latent demand. The reality is very different, sadly.”

His company was a highly successful business catering largely to American visitors to London until March 2020. As with many firms, he has scaled back staffing – and seen the value of his fleet of luxury coaches more than halve, placing them in negative equity.

“Even when tourists return to London we are a good 18 months away from the inbound industry being able to accommodate visitors,” he warned.

“Monuments and attractions, prudent at the best of times, have scaled back operations, with staffing levels, customer flow and capacity levels significantly reduced.”

The tourism minister rejected this pessimism, saying “The whole world is opening up so I’m feeling more optimistic.

“I think we do all have a responsibility to be a bit more positive and optimistic about the future of the tourism sector, and send positive messages.”

Meanwhile Blue Badge tourist guides are warning of a collapse in the number of school groups coming to the UK because of a Brexit ban on arrivals from the European Union using identity cards.

Since the start of October, arrivals from the EU have had to carry passports to visit Britain – though an estimated 250 million European citizens do not have them and rely instead on ID cards.

Themis Halvantzi-Stringer, who trained as an archaeologist and is now a leading official guide to London, said: “Schools are not booking for next year as the requirement for individual passports are a deterrent.

“Once schools get used to other destinations this will be a permanent loss to us.

“Schoolchildren are no threat to the UK and do not come here to immigrate. They come to discover our culture and history, they are our exchange students, the language students and tourists of the future.”

Mr Huddleston said of the ID card ban: “We don’t know what the evidence is as yet. It has been a year in coming, so most people knew it was coming. But we’ll always constantly review immigration measures.

“But there was a reason why it was brought in because there are genuine security concerns by the Home Office.

“The thing is we are communicating as clearly as possible: if you want to come to the UK, and we want you to come to the UK, you will need a passport.”

Blue Badge guides are calling for a “Youth Group Travel Visa” that would enable children in Continental Europe to visit the UK without passports.

The tourism minister said: “I’m looking into other things including multiple group access. So we’ll keep her eyes open, we’ll keep an eye on the numbers, but actually I’m fairly confident that we’ll keep this momentum for everybody to be able to come to the UK.”

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