As we enter the general election year of 2015, the political parties will be turning their minds to what will appear in their political manifestos, which they believe will convince people to vote for them, and therefore get them elected.
Historically, tourism has never featured as a policy priority for any political party. In some ways, this is a little surprising, as depending on how you calculate it, tourism represents around 10% of the UK’s GDP, and total employment – and with those sort of numbers, you would have expected that this would have resulted in politicians falling over themselves to make sure that our sector was happy, and delivering for the country, and that we had an economic and regulatory framework which encouraged tourism.
It is true that tourism did receive a passing mention in the 2010 Coalition agreement, where one clause states: We will take steps to improve the competitiveness of the UK tourism industry, recognising the important part it plays in our national economy.
In practice, it is difficult to see many steps that the Coalition has taken which have generally improved the competitiveness of our sector. Indeed, the most positive action of the Coalition was to appoint a dedicated Tourism Minister in 2010, and John Penrose was a strong advocate for all parts of our sector. Unfortunately, after the 2012 Olympics, the Department of Culture Media and Sport was restructured, and whilst we still have a Minister with tourism in her title, we have dropped down the priority list.
In some ways, this is not a bad thing – in that successive governments have allowed our sector to get on with it, but it also means that we find it difficult to get our voices heard when we do want governments to take action. However, with the impending election, we have a good opportunity to make the case to politicians as what needs to be done to make that provision in the Coalition Agreement a bit more meaningful. We have potentially the most interesting election in many years, in that very few MP’s can be absolutely confident that they will be re-elected. This should make them more willing to listen to constituents about the issues that matter most to them, which represents a good opportunity for all tourism businesses to talk to candidates about the issues which matter most.
What in practice can the industry do?
Whilst one of the key roles of our trade associations is to lobby politicians on our behalf, all businesses have a great chance to talk to candidates directly. We are constituents, and our businesses do keep a lot of people in employment, so candidates should listen to us. Find out who the candidates are – a simple online search will give you most of the names and contact details, and write to them – and better still, commit a couple of hours to go and meet them.
What issues should we focus on?
With politicians, it’s worth keeping matters simple. You would want no more than 3 or 4 key issues – as the more issues you raise, the more likely it is that the last ones mentioned will get forgotten. We are more likely to be listened to as an industry if we try to have some consistency about what is important to us. Bearing all that in mind, I would focus on the following:
Air Passenger Duty. We all know that the current APD regime creates the highest levels of aviation tax in the world, and harms both outbound and inbound tourism – as an island with a massive dependency on transport links, you would have thought that politicians could have seen that as well. However, APD raises a lot of cash for the government, and is incredibly easy for them to collect, so successive governments have been reluctant to change the scheme. We have seen chinks of light in the last 5 years, most notably with the return to the 2 band system from this year. However, we all need to support the messages put forward by A Fair Tax on Flying, and encourage politicians to support the complete abolition of this tax – don’t hold your breath, but you never know…
Airport Capacity. The Coalition managed to delay any thoughts about airport expansion by setting up the Davies Commission. However, that will be reporting after the elections, and at present, neither the Conservatives nor Labour has committed to implement any outputs of the Commission. In the long term, unless our airport capacity grows, less people will be able to travel, either to the UK on holiday, or from the UK for outbound holidays, which will ultimately damage our sector. It’s easy for politicians to put off difficult decisions, so we need to do our best to make them recognise that this cannot be put off forever. This whole topic is really divisive – and those who are affected by aircraft noise would prefer expansion to be at airports which don’t affect them. We need a simple message which recognises that it almost doesn’t matter where expansion takes place, but the priority is recognising that expansion needs to happen, and to do something about it.
Transport Infrastructure. Some politicians seem to think that if we don’t expand airports, then people will simply holiday at home. In view of the inconsistent weather and cost of staying in the UK, that is questionable. In any event, could you imagine the chaos on the roads and trains if the 50 million people who currently holiday overseas chose to stay in the UK? Our population is growing, and whatever else happens, there needs to be continuing investment in transport infrastructure to support that growth.
Consumer Protection. The tourism industry has to be consumer focussed – at the end of the day, our industry is only successful if consumers are happy with what we provide to them. However, we know that there are still some dodgy cowboys out there, whose primary aim is to make a lot of money as quickly as possible without any concern for their customers. As such, we need to accept the principle that consumers should be properly protected. However, there is a danger, which is evident in a lot of EU legislation, that the focus is on consumer protection at all costs – which becomes expensive for those businesses in the industry who want or need to comply. Therefore any consumer protection legislation needs to be proportionate, and applicable to all the industry who are selling similar products. This needs to be an essential feature of the new Package Travel Directive, which will probably be implemented in the lifetime of the next Parliament.
Visas. As someone who has spent most of their career in the outbound tourism sector, this topic has never really troubled me. However, those businesses working in the inbound sector want it to be as easy as possible for tourists to come to the UK. Inbound tourists already face a cost of travel caused by APD which does not apply to our direct competitor nations across Europe. The last thing that UK tourism then needs is a high cost visa regime, where visas can also be difficult to obtain. Some simplification has occurred over the past few years, but the UK remains an expensive country to visit, and from certain parts of the world, processes for obtaining visas can be unnecessarily bureaucratic.
Whilst no doubt ABTA and other trade associations will be making these demands to the general election candidates over the next 6 months, think how much more we would be heard if all tourism businesses also made the same points. So, why not give it a go? Get help if you need it, but see the candidates standing in the General Election, and demand that they support these issues if they get elected. You never know, you might find that they start coming to you for thoughts and views on other topics that affect your businesses if you make the first move now.