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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 17:56 GMT
'Americans think UK is in Mid-East'
Overseas tourists in London
Numbers of overseas visitors to the UK are still down
Many Americans know all about London and England but think the United Kingdom is in the Middle East, Tourism Minister Kim Howells has told a committee of MPs.

Mr Howells explained the confusion the title caused as he told how efforts to get tourists out of London and into the UK's countryside and regional cities have "failed dismally".

Tourism is beginning to slip down the political ladder now

Richard Tobias
He told the Commons culture select committee: "Very often people do not understand the title of the country...

"In America, people had heard of London, some had heard of England, no-one had heard of the United Kingdom - they thought it was somewhere in the Middle East."

A spokeswoman for the culture department said Dr Howells was making a "light hearted" comment to illustrate the need to use expressions in marketing which were familiar to customers.

Dr Howells said the UK also needed to give visitors a better welcome when they arrived in the country.

His comments came as the MPs committee examined the state of UK tourism in the wake of the US terror attacks and the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Tour operator chiefs said government attention to the industry was slipping and suggested there should be a cabinet minister responsible for tourism alone.

Dispersal problems

Dr Howells explained that London was the "great icon" of the UK tourism industry.

Half of the people who visited the UK from overseas last year did not go out of London except for day trips, said Dr Howells.

In the past, it had been argued the capital ought to be seen as a gateway location, with the city's visitors encouraged to go to other areas.

Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary
Jowell has restructured tourism marketing agencies
"I am afraid that both London and the other tourism boards have failed dismally to do this," said Dr Howells.

Dispersing more people to areas outside London would not only spread tourism income but add to the country's attraction to potential visitors.

But those hopes underlined the need to ensure hotels and guest houses were of good quality nationwide.

'Too laissez faire'

Earlier, Richard Tobias, chief executive of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association (BITOA), said UK visitor numbers were still down 4% in the wake of the US terror attacks.

After the attacks and the foot-and-mouth outbreak, people recognised the contribution made by the tourism industry, said Mr Tobias.

"It is beginning to slip down the political ladder now," he argued.

Tourism spending
(Per head)
England: 20p
Wales: 8.28
Scotland: 5.50
"Because of the difficulties for the industry worldwide following 11 September, the industry is now being allowed to look after itself."

Ian Reynolds, chief executive of the Association of Travel Agents (Abta) also argued ministers were taking too much of a "laissez faire" attitude to tourism.

There were "insufficient focus and insufficient resources" from government, said Mr Reynolds.

Such concerns were put to Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, who stressed the amount of time spent talking to the tourism industry in the last 18 months.

"We need to be judged on the results of our efforts," said Ms Jowell.

"Certainly, so far they are efforts which I think because the industry has worked so closely with us broadly shared the confidence of the industry."

Particular efforts were being put into making the industry less fragmented and on building up skill levels, she said.

Devolution concerns

Ms Jowell last month announced plans to combine the resources of the English Tourism Council with the British Tourism Authority.

That has prompted worries that the new body's role in marketing the UK abroad could clash with its duties in promoting England to domestic tourists.

The culture secretary said "some offence" had been caused in the past by the perception that the BTA was an England-focused organisation.

The new body would "market Great Britain to the rest of the world" and be transparent about its English marketing responsibilities.

Conservative MP Michael Fabricant was among those on the committee worried that it was England which was losing out.

The government currently spends 20p per head on tourism in England, compared with 8.28 in Wales and 5.50 in Scotland.

Dr Howells said the results of that spending drew little relation to such discrepancies.

Overseas visitors spent last year 9.9bn in England, 250m in Wales and 760m in Scotland.

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See also:

31 Oct 02 | UK
18 Jun 02 | Politics
18 Sep 01 | Business
08 Jun 01 | Business
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