Tourism Minister John Penrose reflects on the newly published Tourism Strategy and the view from the top of Europe’s soon-to-be tallest hotel and tourist attraction.
It’s always satisfying when a piece of work comes to a conclusion. Whether it’s the heart-stopping moment when you place the first books on a set of shelves you’ve just put up, or that satisfying lurch when the tree trunk you’ve been trying to saw through finally gives up the struggle, completion is a fine thing. And all the more so when the task in question has taken more than just a single afternoon of sweat, frustration and blaming of tools.
Which is not to say that publishing the Government’s Tourism Policy was a struggle akin to Laocoön’s dust-up with the serpent, in Virgil’s Aeneid. Quite the reverse, in fact. But policy involving the work of a number of different government departments and agencies can be tough going, and I was pleased when the published paper was in my hands.
You remember the context for all this, I hope. New lot come into office (no names, no pack drill – this is a Government website, don’t forget), Secretary of State and Prime Minister make public declaration of importance of tourism in economic recovery and restoring international prestige, and then the latter chap asks new Minister for Tourism to do the necessary to prepare a report and recommendations to help bring it about. The Minister in question – that’s me, by the way – gathers a great deal of expert opinion, makes a number of visits to different parts of the country to see how the sector works at the sharp end, has an enjoyable experience as a mystery shopper on a tourist coach tour, and prepares a report which went to the PM – according to timetable – last October.
And now it’s been published for everyone else to see. There is, I think, plenty of useful stuff in it. And I very much hope that once everyone has got past the things that the media found most engaging: consulting on moving the May Day Bank Holiday and deciding, on balance, to leave British Summer Time well alone, to name but two, something more useful and strategic will start to come through.
What the papers (said)
Speaking of media reaction, I had a good opportunity to assess how it had all gone down as I sat in a car at 5.20am on the day after the press conference we held to launch the policy. The driver and I were heading towards BBC Television Centre for the coveted 6.12 slot on Radio 4 which my press officer had arranged for me. Sadly, he hadn’t been able to come with me – ‘Normally I’d have been there like a shot, JP, but I fear I’ll have to stay at home and – err – monitor the other channels’ he told me – but it all went very well, and the coverage on radio, TV and in the papers was very good.
Outbound tourism concerns
By the following day, however, our critics had marshalled their thoughts and a gentle chorus along the lines of ‘What about cutting our taxes, then?’ and ‘This is all well and good, but what about the outbound tourist sector?’ started to come through.
On the former point, of course, I can only respond with the wearily obvious point that the Minister for Tourism has many powers and areas of influence, but slashing VAT on hotel accommodation or lowering Air Passenger Duty are not among them. That’s all for the Chancellor whose deliberations I am not privy to but, like you, I look forward to learning more about later this month.
On the latter, though, I think we mustn’t forget that the outbound sector is clearly the strongest player in the tourism mix and, as such, doesn’t need as much help as the inbound and domestic equivalents. It is important, of course, because it employs huge numbers of people and that brings money into the economy in all sorts of ways including, of course, the money spent at airports, terminals and ports. The strategy is strong on consumer protection and improving transit times and making the overall ‘airport experience’ more efficient and customer friendly, and all this benefits both people arriving and departing, don’t forget. So even if the outbound sector isn’t mentioned as often or as explicitly as some might have wished, its importance in my mind is everywhere to be seen, I think. Because, at the end of the day, people have a perfect right to take their holidays, or make business trips, overseas and it would be downright perverse to suggest otherwise.
I’m happy to talk to – and hear the concerns of – all parts of the industry and, where I can help, I’ll do my best. And so there was the sound of ministerial jaw hitting the floor when I read in The Independent that Manny Fontenla-Novoa, the Chief Executive of Thomas Cook (an estimable company who employ thousands in the UK, and deserve full credit for doing so), believes that ‘the Tourism Minister has refused to even meet with us to discuss his strategy’. Hang on, I thought, that can’t be right. ‘Bring me the head of my Private Secretary!’ I bellowed, a command that lost some of its grandeur as the only person in earshot was the (blameless) woman in question. It turns out that, yes, we (you’ll notice the seamless gear change from first person singular to first person plural) did turn down a request for a meeting when I was two days into the job and had a postbag of similar requests that would more easily be weighed than counted. But nothing since, which makes accusations of refusing to discuss the strategy with him a tad unfair, I thought. But perhaps its time to let bygones be bygones. So apologies, Manny, and do get in touch. Let’s have that chat. There’s a cup of civil service coffee with your name on it. And that’ll teach you to grass me up to The Indie, if nothing else does.
Just time to mention one other thing, I think. And what a thing. I had the opportunity last week to enjoy the view from the top of The Shard, the soon-to-be completed 1,017’ high skyscraper next door to London Bridge Station. When it’s finished next year it will be the tallest building in the EU and the 45th highest in the world. With a mix of office, hotel and residential use – and an amazing viewing gallery and open-air observation deck at the very top – it will become a stunning tourist facility, and very much an attraction in itself. At this point, though, it’s still a work in progress. But, thanks to two lifts, numerous steps and ladders, and a creaking cage that carries hardhat-wearing visitors up to the 72nd floor, it’s a truly stunning experience even so. Oh, and we saw the place where Romeo, the building’s one-time resident fox, made its home. Somehow or other it made its way to the top and lived for some time off food scraps discarded by builders, before eventually being caught and released into the ‘wilds’ of south London.
Life at ground level must seem awfully dull.
Laocoön image by Sebastian Bergmann on Flickr. Some rights reserved.