Sir George addressed the 25th Anniversary Conference of the Tourism Society, which he helped to found in the 1970's.
His talk as entitled
“Tourism 25 years ago – The Politician’s Perspective”
1. 30 years ago, Penguin Books asked me to write a book about the tourist industry. Although I had a full-time job as Economic Adviser to the Post Office, was a member of Lambeth Borough Council and the GLC, and a prospective Parliamentary candidate, I needed £400. So I signed an agreement with Prof Peter Hall and “Tourism, Blessing or Blight?” was published in 1973.
2. My only qualification was that Rik Medlik had recruited me in the 1960’s as Kobler Research Fellow at the University of Surrey, then more conveniently located in Battersea, where I wrote a thesis of heroic tedium on the accommodation industry and acquired an M Phil. I was a small thorn in the comfortable flesh of the tourism establishment, who were I suspect relieved when I chose to go into politics.
3. Since then, my contact with tourism has been as an occasional consumer and as the father of a student at the University of Bournemouth who read tourism and made some disobliging comments when her tutor made her read my book.
4.I want to comment very briefly on what has changed over the past 25 years and what has not changed, focussing on the more strategic issues.
6. First, the place of tourism within UK government. 25 years ago, Ministerial responsibility for tourism rested with the Department of Trade. I argued that this was wrong and that it should be with the Department of the Environment where the planning, environmental and transport implications of tourism growth could be properly assessed. It is now with neither, but with DCMS.
7. I am not sure this is the right destination. My experience in the meantime, when I have been closer to Government than to tourism, is that it is better to be a small part of a large department than a large part of a small department. Where tourism is at the moment, it has neither the direct links with land use, planning, transport, business policy or deregulation. I am not sure that DCMS has a long term future as a department with a ragbag of responsibilities that are unrelated and I would want tourism to be re-routed to a part of Whitehall with more weight and muscle.
8. 25 years ago, there was a debate about the relative roles of the BTA as it then was, and the ETB as it then was The issue of the role of the tourism boards remains a live one, with debates continuing about who markets what. Many will welcome the commitment to restore the marketing role for ETC. I know of the concern that core national functions such as research, quality assurance, regulatory advice and policy for sustainability might be lost or much diminished in the change.
9. The impact of devolution to Scotland and Wales (which have these functions in much better funded boards) may mean England going different ways on these functions - or losing its way altogether.
10. 25 years ago, there was a debate about airport capacity in the South East, and regret at the absence of any long-term strategic thinking by Government on airport policy. I think I fought my first General Election in West London on a pledge to oppose Terminal 3 at Heathrow. Proposals emerged to remedy capacity shortage by building a new airport firstly at Maplin and then at Cublington. Today, it would be a mistake to try to land in either location.
11. Future airport policy seems as clouded in mystery now as it was then, with the long-awaited study on runway capacity in the South East expected imminently. And a White Paper stacked and waiting to land. Cliffe in the North Kent marshes may take on the mantle of Cublington and Maplin.
12. If some debates about structure seem familiar, the market has moved on. There have been some serious discontinuities in market growth – oil price rises, Middle East wars and most recently September 11th. But these are essentially discontinuities, not trend reversals. There is a dynamism that is unstoppable as rising GNP per capita interacts with a reduction in hours worked, and falling real prices of many holidays. I have no reason to revisit the optimistic demand forecasts I made 30 years ago.
13. Alongside buoyant growth, the market has become liberalised and liberated. 25 years ago, there was exchange control, not abolished until 1979. Protectionism has been replaced by free markets, as the economic views of the liberal right have broken through. Thomas Cook, British Airways, the bus and rail industries, and the British Airports Authority were all in the public sector and are now all in the private sector. Entry into the various parts of the market has become freer; budget airlines have successfully challenged the dominance of the national carriers.
14. The consumer has become empowered, with more and better information and more choice. Conventional means of purchase have been challenged by new technology, posing a real threat to the traditional travel agent.
15. Social change has altered the pattern of demand. 25 years ago, holidays tended to be more bunched in the peak summer months, constrained by the conventional two week holiday. They were more concentrated geographically, with the pull of Spain. If the first 25 years after the war saw Butlins and Blackpool displaced by Spain, the next 25 years saw Spain challenged by almost every where else.
16. The relative price of the more distant locations has plummeted, opening up to mass tourism destinations considered remote and expensive 25 years ago. Nearly every student appears to have visited Thailand in his or her gap year.
17. Decisions are increasingly spontaneous as Martha Lane Fox – only just older than your society – makes a holiday abroad on Saturday possible on the Friday.
18. The channel tunnel has brought the North of France to our very doorstep.
19. Domestically, with the decline in agriculture, tourism has assumed a strategic importance in the rural economy. I see this in my NW Hants constituency. The income from the farmer’s wife has in many cases overtaken the income from the farmer and the farm. Tourism will have yet closer links with agriculture, as farmers have to diversify.
20. Local Authorities take the industry more seriously, appointing Tourism officers who were a rare species back in the 1970s. The new RDAs may emerge as the principal providers of strategy - and possibly funding in this area, which calls for clarity in administrative structure with two tiers of local authority, area tourist boards, RDAs and Government Offices for the Regions - variously linked to ETC and different Government departments. A potential bureaucratic nightmare.
21. It is for others to look ahead. I just mention two points. First, I doubt whether airline travel will remain so lightly taxed for ever, as against other forms of travel where fiscal policy is used to restrain demand for fossil fuels. Second, I believe there is enormous scope for the better use of tourism to help the less developed countries – particularly against the background of an appetite for the unusual, the unspoilt.
22. Those who are interested in this subject have one advantage not available 25 years ago. The Tourism Society. It can put the enthusiasm of the politician, the special pleading of certain sections of the industry in a more objective context. It has promoted professionalism in the 'industry' along with independent views; it has helped to bridge the sectors which are the industry’s cornerstones
23. I pay tribute to its work and wish it a Happy 25th Birthday.