Iain Murray: Welcoming tourists to the swollen bosom of Britain

As part of a push to stimulate British tourism, the Tourist Authority is encouraging European pensioners to visit the UK’s hidden, yet mighty, peaks. By Iain Murray

Forget the Deathwatch beetle, disregard new strains of voracious aphids; if all goes according to plan, the nation’s gardeners will soon be keeping an eye out for invaders of a quite different sort.

From next spring, a shaking in the shrubbery or an excited chattering behind the gazebo might well denote a visiting Belgian. Should closer inspection confirm the presence of a stranger of pensionable age, wearing a trench coat and sensible shoes, and carrying a map, then the British Tourist Authority (BTA) will have achieved its aim.

In a bold move born as much out of desperation as inspiration, the authority plans to sink almost all of the &£14m – given to it by the Government to combat the effects on tourism of foot and mouth – into a marketing campaign aimed at attracting older visitors from European countries including France, Germany and Belgium.

So much for Cool Britannia, the Young Nation, Swinging Bronte Country and all the other groovy enticements so recently held out to potential tourists from Japan and North America; the funeral pyres of rural England, followed by the still more dreadful smoke of Manhattan have decimated those traditional markets. Instead, the BTA has set its sights on more mature tourists from closer to home, people who already know something of the UK, and might be persuaded to take a closer look – people who are more contemplative, more curious, and more inclined to walk than Americans.

For these new visitors, the BTA holds out the promise of “Hidden Britain” – a nation awash with countryside, a land rich in unexplored nooks and crannies, an island steeped, nay sodden, in history. Destinations “off the beaten track” include “numerous gardens” as well as “unusual places” such as Pitlochry power station in the Highlands, the Llechwedd slate caverns in North Wales and the original Colman’s Mustard Shop in Norwich.

If this has about it the whiff of panic, the BTA may be forgiven. This has been a disastrous year for tourism, with income expected to fall by 15 to 20 per cent, a decline on the previous year of some &£2.5bn. We cannot stand a loss of that size. We need the money and it’s up to all of us in this hour of need to play our part. So, should you find a German, or even a French person, perhaps a little stricken in years, maybe not hearing as well as he or she used to, tottering among the thistles and discarded car tyres at the end of your garden, do not shoo them away, still less heave half a brick at them as is the British custom; no, put a friendly arm around their shoulder, welcome them into your home, give them a nice cup of tea, and suggest some unusual places they might visit: the gasworks, the sewerage pump station, the late Elizabethan underpass with its colourful aerosol murals crafted by local youth.

For all its good intentions, though, the BTA may be adopting too narrow an approach. These are desperate times and we should play to every strength at our disposal. Here’s one: last week it was revealed that British women have the biggest breasts in Europe, no mean achievement and no idle boast.

A survey of 5,000 women across Europe shows that nearly a third of all bras sold to British women are D, E, and F cups. In second place are the Dutch with 20 per cent, followed by Denmark, Belgium, France, Sweden and Austria. For some reason the Germans are not included.

We must take care to avoid unseemly triumphalism – our European partners are notoriously touchy whenever we so much as hint at a national superiority – even so, we should eschew undue modesty. Our airports and seaports, our beer mats and customs officers should welcome visitors to Britain – Breast Capital of Europe.

Such a policy would not be inconsistent with the BTA’s existing strategy. To suggest otherwise would be insensitively ageist: that a man is greying, has an interest in gardens, and is Belgian, is no bar to his responding to the kind of feminine beauty that expresses itself in a certain amplitude; nothing is so certain to liven the step, lift the heart, and jog the memory of the older man, not even admission to Colman’s original mustard shop. So let us make the most of a priceless national asset.

But what, I hear the Belgian ladies cry, of we women? What can Britain offer us of comparable appeal? The answer, girls, is the dumbest men in Europe. Look at any TV commercial on our screens and you will see clever, attractive, and, yes, on occasion, full-bodied women running rings around men who are plainly strangers to thought. It is part of our rich heritage: wherever you look, behind the hollyhocks, in the power station, down the slate caverns, there are to be found the descendants of the straw-sucking idiots who first peered over five-bar gates at the earliest tourists to this land.

It’s in that kind of historical continuity – the sense that the present is reaching back to grasp hands with the past – that the greatest rewards of tourism are to be found. The whistle-stop Americans, with their here-today-gone-tomorrow approach miss so much. By contrast, Europeans who bide awhile in this fair isle of ours will discover much to make them think.


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