Tunnel vision led to mindless optimism

The Channel Tunnel promised great things for Britain’s tourist industry. But we don’t have much to offer tourists says Iain Murray.

Clearing out a desk drawer can be a disquieting, even melancholy, experience. Here are pictures of children grown up and left home, here are others of loved family pets long since departed, and here are some old theatre tickets for plays whose dramatic effect was such that not a single moment can be recalled. It is not often, however, that you find, as I did the other day, a yellowing document that so poignantly evokes the vanity of human wishes and the folly of clever men.

Called The Channel Tunnel – An opportunity and a Challenge for British Tourism, it was published by the British Tourist Authority (BTA) in March 1988. In every excited page it foresees the pleasures and riches promised by one of the great technological achievements of the 20th century. While marvelling at man’s ability to unite what nature had cast asunder, its true purpose is to celebrate the inevitable and wholly-to-be-welcomed boost to that most thrilling and ultimately purposeless of modern industries, mass tourism.

The reader of 16 years ago was invited to imagine a world in which excited, smiling Britons pile on to super-fast trains en route to the sumptuous pleasures of Paris – the museums, the boulevard restaurants, the alfresco art galleries on the South Bank, the Eiffel Tower. We, for our part, could expect a huge influx of French nationals eager to explore the historic riches of what used to be our island kingdom until that joyous moment when it was united with mainland Europe.

If the truth was somewhat different, no one dared to speak it, not in those heady, exultant days when the tunnel was under construction and each shovelful of earth removed was replaced by a shovelful of our hopes. It would have been unpatriotic, not to mention uncharacteristically honest, of the tourist authorities to ask why any sane French person would want to leave the food, wine and culture of his native land for the inferior offerings at the other end of the tunnel. At that time, the only facilities we could offer that were superior to those available in France were our lavatories, and a round trip of some 400 miles, even when greatly hastened by a subterranean link, would seem a long way to go for a pee. Equally, the French were probably too polite to express openly the dread that they must have felt at the prospect of their elegantly crumbling capital being deluged by some of the most brutish, boorish and uncivilised people on Earth.

In any event, none of this came to pass. The tunnel took a year longer to build than planned and cost twice the forecast budget, so that by the time it was finished in 1994, &£10bn had been sunk into a magnificent hole in the ground. And what of the passengers? The BTA’s document boldly asserted: “In the first full year of operation, it is estimated that between 26 million and 29 million passengers will use the tunnel.” Ten years on, the figure has yet to reach 7 million. So people on both sides of the Channel preferred either to stay at home or choose holiday destinations more exotic than the lands of their nearest neighbour and historic enemy. Rather than go by Chunnel, those who did decide to travel to and from France or vice versa preferred the alternatives of the budget airlines or the ferries. Back in 1988, the likes of easyJet were unimagined and it was confidently predicted that the ferries would go out of business. And so it was that the confident forecasts of market researchers, economists, City analysts, and the mouthpiece of them all, the politicians, came to nought.

To be fair, it would have taken a Nostradamus to predict that an investment that couldn’t lose would end up being almost worthless. Last year, the Channel Tunnel declared losses of &£1.3bn; it owes &£6.4bn; and the shares, once going for &£8 each, are now worth only pennies. Earlier this year, the entire board was kicked out by a group of angry French shareholders and replaced by a new board, led by a businessman with multiple fraud convictions and a chairman designate who travels by motor scooter, and made up of unemployed executives, retirees, a sociologist and a man under investigation for money-laundering.

As for the BTA, it has since been reincarnated as VisitBritain. Its optimism undimmed, its “mission is to build the value of tourism by creating world-class destination brands and marketing campaigns”. One’s heart goes out to the residents of sleepy Cotswold hamlets and remote Lakeland parishes who awaken to discover they have become “destination brands”.

Wisely, VisitBritain’s latest campaign is aimed at encouraging Britons to holiday in Britain. “What it will do, for the first time, is create a picture in the mind of British consumers of all that an English holiday means to them,” says marketing director Mike Bedingfield.

The campaign is wisely conceived because not even the most wary of foreign visitors to this country can be prepared for the shock of what awaits them. We Britons, however, know what to expect. We are conditioned to litter, squalor and rudeness. And as the sun sets over the picturesque market squares of our county towns, we brace ourselves for the drunken violence that is our heritage.

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