Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and a former BBC News personal finance and consumer affairs reporter.
I was wrong. I genuinely thought there would be a major initial economic fallout from the Brexit vote. But there hasn’t been to date and I’m delighted. However, whatever the nature of the Brexit – and I personally think the faster the better – we do face some economic dislocation. However, we should see this as an opportunity to expand our horizons and think anew. No, this isn’t another lauding of free trade – I will leave that to others. The ability to forge new trade deals is all well and good but we mustn’t neglect one of our country’s greatest advantages
When it comes to creating a new, global Britain we have huge inbuilt advantages. The United Kingdom is consistently ranked as one of the world’s greatest soft-power superpowers – indeed in 2015 China ranked us as the most culturally influential nation on earth.
It isn’t hard to see why: the UK enjoys close relations with the United States and, via the Commonwealth, a huge range of countries with which we have long-standing historical ties. We’re also just off the coast of Europe, and the European Union will continue to be an important trading and diplomatic partner to Britain in the years ahead.
Then we have the inbuilt advantage of being the home of English, the world’s second language, a world-beating culture sector that exports music and TV programmes across the world, and some of the best universities on earth.
Now that we have voted to leave the EU it’s vital that we turbo-charge our efforts to connect with the wider world, and tourism will be an essential part of that process.
According to the Tourism Alliance, in 2014 the industry accounted for 7.1 per cent of UK GDP worth £121.1 billion, estimated to rise to £127.4 billion in 2015. Britain was the world’s eighth-biggest international tourist destination by visitor numbers and the sixth-largest by visitor expenditure, accounting for 3.6 per cent of global tourism receipts. All of this accounted, in 2013, for more than three million jobs.
Our country has a huge amount to offer the international visitor. We have great cities for every taste, almost 50 areas of outstanding natural beauty across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (and another 40 ‘national scenic areas’ in Scotland), an extraordinary history and cultural heritage.
This breadth of features as a destination is enhanced by how convenient a holiday in Britain is to so many: we’re close to many markets and well-connected to even more, we’re English-speaking, and our streets – despite the downer we have on ourselves – are safe and well-ordered. However, there is more to do.
Even before the EU vote the Government recognised the importance of investing properly in our tourism sector. In July 2015 David Cameron launched ‘Backing the Tourism Sector: A Five Point Plan’, which outlined the next steps for building up this vital sector.
This plan reflected the broad range of policies needed to create a well-rounded tourism strategy, including better coordination within the industry, helping to attract top-quality employees into the sector and give them the training they need, and create a common-sense regulation and visa regime.
I was particularly pleased that Point Four was dedicated to transportation, and that the Government recognised the importance of helping “more visitors to travel outside the capital”. Proposals for clearer signage, joined-up ticketing offers, and better coordination between different transport providers are all welcome.
A cut in Air Passenger Duty, and devolution of the rates to a more local level, must also be on the agenda. In my constituency Birmingham Airport is a hugely important local employer, and I’ve seen first-hand how measures to boost regional airports create a flow of benefits to the wider region.
The devolution agenda also offers an exciting opportunity to diversify our tourism sector away from dependence on London by making newly-empowered organisations like the West Midlands Combined Authority partners in Britain’s tourism strategy, helping to make the most of everything their area has to offer. Not forgetting that Warwickshire was recently named by Conde Nast as one of the top ten places to visit globally.
As we redefine our borders post-Brexit, we ought to give preferential entry to those nations where we see tourism at present and those nations where it is clear there are great opportunities to be had. In addition, we need to spend to market our great nation overseas, other countries are much better at this. There shouldn’t be an airport in the G20 nations where you don’t see British tourism plugged and that is far from the case at present. Customer service also needs to be central to our offering, training and apprenticeships will help here and we must use the opportunities of leaving the EU to free our tourism SMEs from the dead hand of burdensome regulation. As for accommodation capacity we could look to France for what to do, they attract huge numbers of foreign investors into their tourism industry by simply giving a cash back on property investment in return for the guarantee that the property will be available for tourism use for nine years at least. This is why there is plenty of tourist accommodation in the French Alps. What’s more, certain types of tourist accommodation – flats for rent not hotel rooms – can be recycled into the housing stock over time as they become superseded by newer build.
In economic terms tourism is what can be termed an elastic industry – like construction – in that it can grow and contract at a relatively stark rate. We have punched under our weight for too long and not leveraged this nation’s natural advantages. Now with the pressing need to expand our economic horizons we should look to what we have under our noses and exploit it to the maximum.