Today David Cameron has spoken of his ambition for the UK to break into the top five tourist destinations in the world, from its current sixth position. This apparently entails moving away from the neo-socialist “Cool Britannia” to focus on Britain’s heritage.
According to the Prime Minister, tourism’s contribution to the economy could grow by over 60% to £188 billion in 2020, from the current £115 billion, bringing significant employment benefits.
Cameron’s enthusiasm for “rebalancing the economy” may, however, translate into a policy of “picking winners” – an approach that has proved economically disastrous in other sectors. There could be government initiatives to invest in tourism or subsidies to incentivise new entrants into the market. Evidently, there are significant opportunity costs associated with allocating public money in these ways, and current very high levels of government borrowing make it particularly inadvisable.
A better approach would be for the government to improve the incentives for private investment through lowering taxes and removing regulatory constraints. Another worthwhile strategy would be to privatise national heritage sites to maximise their profit potential.
If it is serious about encouraging growth in tourism, the coalition must also act to make the UK more accessible to visitors. It should be much easier for foreign tourists to obtain visas. The high level of red tape inherent in the process needs to be cut. Tourists are unlikely to visit Britain if faced with border controls and security measures that treat them like criminals.