HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc849-57
Mr. Deputy Speaker

I fear that every subsequent Adjournment debate must now be limited to 24 minutes.

2.11 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas (Kettering)

Two years ago in this House I raised some of the problems of tourism and since then I have become more aware of those problems.

Earlier this year I took the chair at a conference run by the European League for Economic Co-operation on the international problems of tourism and the environment. I have also attended nearly all the meetings of the all-party Tourism Committee this year which has been discussing more national problems, and in the course of those meetings I have heard about the arguments for more Government intervention in tourism.

Only a few years ago the tourist organisations threw up their hands in horror at the thought of classifying hotel accommodation and publishing a register. Today there is enormous support for that suggestion and for the national tourist boards' scheme for voluntary registration and to extend it and make it compulsory.

Why do the Government not back these boards with a Government-sponsored scheme? What is the point of sitting back, in company with Denmark, alone among the European countries, and saying that tourists should not be protected in this way? Britain and Denmark are the only countries apparently in step.

Fortunately there are few cases of hotels cheating visitors here, but there would be none if the Government were doing their job properly of protecting citizens and visitors and helping this important trade.

I ask for a strong Government register of all accommodation with power to remove names from that register. It works in traditional tourist countries such as France, Italy, Spain and so on. Why not here?

Yesterday Sir Mark Henig, the Chairman of the English Tourist Board, asked the Government to concern themselves not only with the quality and pattern of tourism, but with location. That is a plea from the chairman for more Government involvement and money as it is a plea from me today.

When I use the words "more Government money" I do not want to be misunderstood. The fact is that the Government are spending less each year on tourism. It is amazing. Last year the figure was £20 million; this year it is £10 million; next year it will probably be about £3 million. Yet this is the time to spend money to seize the great opportunities that the oil problem has given to us. British people who have the habit of going abroad for holidays cannot afford them now with the fantastic rise in oil prices, and they are taking their holidays at home. The figures are extraordinary. The tourist organisations calculate that probably one-third of those who previously went abroad for their holidays will not be going abroad this summer. Where will they go instead? They will be in this country, but where?

Unless the Government back the tourist boards' efforts, those tourists will be overcrowding the south of England. The latest figures show that 70 per cent. of English tourism is in London and Bristol and south of a line drawn from London to Bristol. No wonder it is almost impossible to reach this Palace because of the number of tourists milling around. I do not object to that. It is inconvenient, but it is not a major source of annoyance.

However, the load must be spread. The national tourist boards know how to do it, they have experience, but they need support. The national tourist boards have been successful. Last year the English Tourist Board encouraged people to go to the small towns of England. That effort was successful. The figures show remarkably increased bookings in hotels in the small towns of England. A huge task lies before us to capture this new British tourist market, and to encourage people to spend their holidays north of the line from Bristol to London.

My own constituency is not far north of that line, and it is typical of the areas which are not traditional tourist areas. It is in Northamptonshire, in the heart of the rural English countryside. It has beautiful churches, but there is only one nationally known beauty spot, which is Rockingham Castle. The whole area is attractive, and Corby has the unique distinction of being the only garden city steel-making town in Europe. I mention my constituency because it is typical of those which are not known as tourist areas.

I have been speaking chiefly about domestic tourists, that is British tourists on holiday. I have done so because British tourists are the problem and the opportunity. Because our ears are struck by the number of people speaking American-English, German, French and Italian, the problem is widely misunderstood. The English Tourist Board's annual report has a definition, "tourist trip", which refers to a person spending at least one night away from home on holiday. The board calculates that of the 140 million tourist trips taken in Britain in 1972 only 7 million were made by overseas visitors. British tourists are the problem. No one should under-estimate the importance of the 7 million tourists from overseas because of the foreign exchange which they represent. But we confuse ourselves when we measure the effect of tourism on the environment. The effects are caused by our fellow-countrymen taking their holidays in London and Bristol, and south of the Bristol to London line.

I ask for the Government's rate of spending on tourism to be maintained and not reduced drastically, as planned.

How is that money to be spent? Here are our tasks. First, we need a compulsory register of accommodation. Secondly, we need a national network of tourist information centres on the lines of those which have long operated so successfully in France. Thirdly, there must be promotion of off-season tourism. Fourthly, because of the importance of foreign exchange, there must be promotion overseas of our tourist attractions, especially those which are away from the traditional areas. It is not easy to persuade overseas visitors to go outside the traditional areas. The figures show that two out of three visitors to the Tower of London are from over seas. This is year after year.

However, it must be one of the principal efforts of the tourist boards. But we must recognise that this campaign to spread the load needs money, and the Government should not continue the policy of drastically reducing the budget.

2.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Eric Deakins)

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) for having raised the question of tourism today. The House will know of his interest in the subject and the work that he has done as chairman of the all-party committee on tourism which provides a forum for discussion of the problems facing the tourist industry and of those who live in areas which are affected, for better or worse, by tourism. I am only sorry that my right hon. Friend could not have been present at a rather late-night debate we had earlier this month when the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) also raised the subject of tourism, when we touched on some of the issues that my right hon. Friend has raised today.

I should like to deal straight away with one of the points raised by my right hon. Friend about hotel registration. My predecessor, under the previous Conservative Government, decided not to implement a proposal by the English Tourist Board which would have required anyone supplying tourist accommodation by way of trade or business to give the board particulars of establishments which had four or more letting bedrooms. The previous Government decided instead on a voluntary scheme to register and classify all forms of tourist accommodation. The results should appear in the form of tourist accommodation in regional accommodation guides in 1975. This, I think, will give tourists as much information in this country as is available in other countries. I feel that at this stage we must now await experience of this vountary scheme before deciding whether further action is necessary.

My right hon. Friend also said that the Government are spending less on tourism. In one sense that is true. In another sense it is a little misleading to say that, because much of Government expenditure on the tourist infrastructure in the past few years has been under the Hotel Development Incentive Scheme whereby grants were made available for building new hotels and so on. The fact that that scheme is running down technically means that less Government money is being spent. However, the basic amounts of Government money being spent on the general tourist services of the tourist boards and the British Tourist Authority are more or less being maintained. It may be a matter for conjecture whether we ought to be spending more on the boards. I shall come to the point raised by my right hon. Friend in that connection.

The main burden of my right hon. Friend's speech was the need to persuade tourists to distribute themselves more widely throughout the country. Here I am talking not just of England but of the whole of Great Britain. As I see it, the main problem for Government in relation to tourism is to get visitors to move from the prosperous and frequently congested areas to places with unexploited but genuine tourist potential, particularly within the development areas. The number of tourists, whether resident here or overseas, is likely to go on increasing steadily and although the problems of congestion have been exaggerated it is clear that we must pay more attention to tourist management and less to tourist growth.

We shall certainly do nothing in the short run which would discourage people from taking holidays in Britain. Tourism plays too important a part in our trade balance to do that. But, as Sir Mark Henig, the Chairman of the English Tourist Board, said in his foreword to the board's latest annual report, we need to be more concerned with quality, pattern and location than with absolute growth. The difficulty in a free society is that we shall not be able to prevent people from coming here for their holidays if they wish. All that we can do is to try to steer them to places where more tourism would add to our wealth rather than compete with resources devoted to other and often more profitable uses.

There is, however, a limit to what we can do by way of taxation. The idea of a tourist tax as a disincentive leads to many difficulties as the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) found when he introduced his Local Revenue Bill. We are left with the gentle but unfortunately expensive art of persuasion. There is a limit to the extent that the British Tourist Authority and the national tourist boards can persuade overseas visitors and British people not to spend their holidays in the south of England. I am not convinced that the limit has anywhere near been reached. The question is whether tourists can be directed to the less prosperous areas whose economies would most welcome the patronage which tourism can offer. Obviously any diversion of tourists would affect the more prosperous areas, but they tend to get a disproportionate share of the tourist trade, especially tourists from overseas.

Such diversion would mean a greater emphasis on the use of local resources and the prosperous areas may well welcome such a move if, as the experience of London shows, the tourist invasion is beginning to affect the quality of life. My right hon. Friend was right to make the point about congestion in London. I noted with interest, as I am sure my right hon. Friend did, that the GLC has taken the first tentative step in that direction in a recently published report. Any measure taken to disperse tourists does not mean that tourists in London and the South will be adversely affected. Most of our overseas visitors want to visit London at some time during their stay. In fact, London promotes itself. What we want to do is to get the tourists to go elsewhere.

The Chairman of the English Tourist Board said yesterday that his board is inclined towards a policy aimed broadly at encouraging the containment but more profitable management of the huge tourist industry in the South and the active and direct stimulation of profitable growth north of a line drawn between Bristol and London.

I agree that there is no need for the statutory tourist organisations to promote tourism in the south of England, but looked at from the point of view of Great Britain as a whole, it is by no means self-evident that Government should go out of their way to stimulate profitable growth in the prosperous Midlands and the more prosperous parts of the North. The South enjoys a long holiday season and the Midlands and parts of the North benefit out of season from business visitors and from the support that comes from being adjacent to a free-spending large urban area. Self-help should be the policy in all such cases. Our scarce resources should be used to help the more fragile areas with few alternative means of support.

That raises a point of more general application. My right hon. Friend has referred to the need for a national network of tourist offices. There is already a network of tourist information centres. Well over 50 such centres operate as national centres, giving general information services throughout the whole of Britain. Many more provide a booking service for visitors who want immediate accommodation. The tourist boards deserve to be congratulated on their initiative in bringing the existing information services together and making them provide a more efficient service to tourists.

The question that must be asked is whether it is right that the community as a whole should be asked to provide a service providing, for example, instant booking facilities which might be regarded as luxurious by the home tourist. It is interesting to consider the outstandingly successful tourist organisation of the Netherlands which receives virtually no financial support from central Government. Tourist pay a booking fee for the first night's accommodation and the cost of providing information and other services is financed by trade and the local authorities. That is not to say that there is not a good case for subsidy when it will help to steer visitors to the less prosperous areas.

One weapon in our armoury is the financial assistance that is provided under Section 4 of the Development of Tourism Act 1969 to projects that will provide or improve tourist amenities and facilities in the development areas. The national tourist boards have used this money—amounting to £2.5 million this year—to help provide a wide range of amenities and facilities, including small accommodation projects, indoor entertainment, local museums, bird gardens, water and other sports facilities and craft centres.

The Wales Tourist Board, for example, has concentrated on attracting visitors to inland and rural areas, and even the older industrial areas such as Blaenau Ffestiniog, so as to relieve the pressure on the resorts.

Much effort has been extended on encouraging farmers to provide bed and breakfast facilities and such facilities as pony trekking. All this can bring new life into areas affected or threatened with depopulation.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned off-season promotion. The problem of the distribution of tourists in terms of time as well as space is one which has been with us for as long as the promotion of tourism has been an objective of Government policy. The problem has eased somewhat in recent years with the substantial increase in people's holiday entitlements. People are more and more inclined to take shorter holidays and to have more of them spread over the year.

The hotel and travel trade has also become much more price conscious in its marketing and this has helped dissuade people from taking their holidays in July and August when capacity is stretched to the utmost. In so far as off-season promotion is rewarding—and the assumption must be that it is—it must be right to examine whether those who are most likely to benefit should pay the cost.

This is a matter to which we are giving our attention. Where does this leave Kettering and the East Midlands? This is certainly one area with unexploited but genuine tourist potential. As my right hon. Friend undoubtedly knows, it is an area lying between Birmingham and the sea and London and the north, with the result that some people hurry through it in their cars as if the devil were at their heels. More people could stay there and I am glad to say that means of attracting them are being studied.

The interests concerned are looking at ways of changing the present pattern of the distribution of tourists in the Midlands. As my right hon. Friend knows, Kettering now has a flourishing Tourist Information Centre. There are four establishments in the town listed in the East Midlands Tourist Board's 1974 accommodation guide. Others, including one of the two large hotels, are not listed but I hope that they will soon join as a result of the efforts which the Regional Tourist Board is making this year to enlarge the accommodation registered there.

The Forestry Commission has co-operated by creating nature trails in the area, either alone or jointly with the Northamptonshire Naturalists' Trust. There is clearly room in this part of England for the active and direct stimulation of profitable growth to which my right hon. Friend and the Chairman of the English Tourist Board referred yesterday. But Kettering, for example, has a rate of unemployment which is little more than half the national average and I am sure my right hon. Friend would be among the first to agree that it would be wrong in our present difficult circumstances to draw on the limited resources of the Exchequer to subsidise activities which should be sponsored by those who benefit from them and are in a position to pay.

It is a matter for serious consideration whether the Government contribution through the tourist organisations ought not to be concentrated to a greater extent on the less-favoured regions. This would help meet my right hon. Friend's main point about the dispersal of tourists from the congested South.

The East Midlands Tourist Board and the Northamptonshire County Council are working together to promote the area. They should be able, with the help of local interests concerned, to promote the tourist attractions of the area nationally and, through the British touris authority, internationally.

I bring my remarks to a close at that point. Once again I thank my right hon. Friend for having raised this matter, which occupies a considerable part of my time in the Department. My right hon. Friend can rest assured that we are constantly looking at our tourist expenditure and our forms of tourist organisation with a view to seeing whether we cannot improve them to bring about the desirable ends to which he has referred.