Blighty’s castles are still in the air

Though the launch takes place against the backdrop of war – never a congenial environment for tourism – the arrival of VisitBritain has not come a minute too soon.

VisitBritain, for the uninitiated, is a new body shaped from the merger of the British Tourist Authority and the England Tourism Council. This, it is hoped, will bring vigour and direction to what until now may be politely termed an area of uncreative tension – the marketing of England.

Of course, that’s not its only, or even its main task. VisitBritain, first and foremost, should do what it says on the tin, and bring a holistic approach to the marketing of this island, both at home and abroad.

At first sight, this seems such a blindingly obvious piece of common sense that it beggars belief no one thought of it before. Why not, you may reasonably ask? The short and unsatisfactory answer is: politics.

Under the old regime, which was dreamt up after a government review over four years ago, the marketing of England, as a ‘national’ concept, was effectively emasculated with the abolition of the English Tourist Board. Its successor body, the ETC, minus a marketing budget, struggled for identity. In some vague and indefinable way it was supposed to be a ‘national co-ordinating body’, involved in the strategic development of tourism policies. The marketing of England, meanwhile, was devolved to ten regional boards, whose small budgets and organisational infrastructure were unequal to the resources deployed by the Celtic fringe: Scotland and Wales.

There is a curious echo in all of this of the political correctness of parliamentary regional devolution. While England has been fobbed off with a few (relatively powerless) super-mayors, Scotland and Wales enjoy their own properly budgeted regional assemblies. Whatever the appropriateness of this blueprint in political circles, it has turned out to be a colossal failure when applied to tourism.

Since 2000, both the number of visitors to the UK (the responsibility of the BTA) and the value of the UK market (including domestic tourism) have been in perceptible decline. Now, it could be argued that this decline had much to do with unavoidable disaster – in the form of a foot-and-mouth outbreak swiftly followed by 9/11 – which it did. But that does not entirely excuse the organisational inadequacy of the old regime in dealing with these emergencies and their aftermath.

Make no mistake, however: whatever the ostensible merits of a more streamlined, even-handed organisation, VisitBritain will be given little time to prove its case. Already, the Scottish and Welsh tourist bodies are complaining that VisitBritain is a misnomer for VisitEngland, which will discriminate against their best interests. While it’s certainly true that England is about to experience its first ‘national’ campaign (launched appropriately enough on St George’s Day), under VisitBritain, the charge of discrimination is vigorously rebutted. We’ll have to see how even-handed the new organisation actually turns out to be. For the moment, however, it will be lucky to attract tourists to any region of Britain, thanks to the war.

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