Luring tourists to Britain in recent years has been a complicated business. Not only has the UK tourist industry had to deal with foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the countryside and the fear of terrorism hanging over most major cities since 9/11, it has also had to cope with an identity crisis.
From the beginning of this week, a new body formed from the merger of the British Tourist Authority (BTA) and The English Tourism Council (ETC), operating under the name of VisitBritain (MW last week) will be responsible for marketing Britain abroad, as well as for promoting England to domestic and overseas tourists. The timing of its launch could not have been worse, being two weeks into the Iraq war.
Many industry insiders are waiting to see whether VisitBritain, headed by BTA chief executive Tom Wright and marketing director Kenny Boyle, will produce a co-ordinated strategy for marketing Britain – and England – that arguably has not existed in the past.
The BTA has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the many crises – the strong pound, foot and mouth and the fall-out of the terrorist attacks on New York – that have hit UK tourism over the past few years. In particular, its attempt to rebuild confidence in the UK among potential tourists with the £5m UK:OK overseas campaign was lambasted in the press.
Although admitting that the 2001 campaign was “criticised widely in the media” a spokesman for VisitBritain claims that UK:OK was in fact a success: “Among the trade buying into that campaign, it was well received and considered elegantly simple.”
But that did not stop the BTA deciding to give Britain yet another image makeover, unveiling a new initiative entitled “Only in Britain, Only in 2002”. The tourist authority later insisted the exercise was simply a continuation of its long-running strategy of evaluating Britain’s attractions.
However, one agency insider, who pitched unsuccessfully to work on the UK:OK campaign last year, says the organisation was chaotic and lacked any “strategic forwardthinking”, having been forced to behave more like a crisis-management bureau.
“The BTA had not had to deal with a crisis for ten years – since the Gulf War,” says the VisitBritain spokesman. “And then it had to deal with two major disasters that no one could have predicted.”
The BTA’s repeated attempts to overhaul the marketing of the UK have been matched by as many changes in the way that England has been marketed. After conducting a review of UK tourism, the Government abolished the English Tourist Board four years ago and replaced it with the ETC. Unlike the ETB, the new council did not have responsibility for marketing England.
The ETC was to act as a so-called “national co-ordinating body”, concentrating on strategic work such as research, and developing and implementing national tourism plans with the Government. Marketing was left in the hands of the ten regional tourist boards, each marketing their areas as individual tourist destinations.
In contrast, Wales and Scotland continued to have their own tourist bodies with full marketing powers. The Scottish and Welsh tourist bodies each received £23m worth of grants from the Government, double the amount made available to the English body.
At the time, many in the industry were concerned that the establishment of the ETC would mean England’s national tourism identity would be neglected.
“We knew it [the removal of the marketing function] was a mistake, and no one could really reassure us, or tell us why they were doing it,” says a managing director of a UK hotel group. “All [the Government] could say was that the ETC had lost its marketing function in order to become more strategic. We weren’t convinced and many of us thought the Government had over-indulged with devolution.”
Just a year after its launch, the ETC realised that the ten regional boards were operating without any cohesive brand identity and it unveiled an England logo for their use. However, the ETC was still unable to market England singularly as a tourist destination.
Yet, the combined efforts of the ETC and the BTA have failed to prevent a drop in the number of tourists visiting the UK. In 2000, there were 25.2 million visitors to the UK and the market was worth £12.8bn. By 2001 visitors number had dropped to 22.8 million and the market’s value had fallen to £11.3bn, according to the Office of National Statistics. Figures for 2002 are as yet unavailable, but they are not expected to have recovered to the levels of 2000.
The Government was eventually forced to change tack again over tourism last year, following fierce lobbying in Parliament. Last October, Wright, the BTA’s newly appointed chief executive, was about to reveal his plans for marketing the UK abroad when culture secretary Tessa Jowell announced plans to merge the BTA with the ETC to form one body that would be able to market England domestically, as well as overseas.
The Scottish and Welsh tourist bodies – VisitScotland and VisitWales – have both voiced concerns that VisitBritain would distribute its resources unfairly between marketing England and marketing Britain.
“I have seen comments that there is a worry this will happen, but it is absolutely not the case,” says the VisitBritain spokesman, who claims that England has its own £14.1m ring-fenced marketing budget and will not benefit from Britain’s allocated marketing spend.
And a spokesman for VisitScotland admits that its early concerns over funding for Britain being redirected to England have been dampened by reassurances from VisitBritain.
VisitBritain has already announced a campaign to market England to the domestic market. Due to launch on St George’s Day, April 23, the £4m campaign is designed to give thirtysomethings a “positive, contemporary, refreshing view” of their own country.
It will also no doubt be drawing up plans to deal with the effect of war in Iraq on tourism. But if the conflict drags on then VisitBritain’s task in wooing new visitors to the UK is likely to become even harder.