A warning that Britain could squander its enormous tourism potential unless the government acts quickly to remove obstacles to growth will be issued by top businessmen this week.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes the tourism and leisure sectors can be significant generators of jobs and investment over the rest of the century. A CBI report to be published on Tuesday is expected to support recent tourist authority estimates that 400,000 new jobs could be added to the 1.2m already in the industry.
Like the tourist authorities, the CBI is concerned that visitors may be deterred by a lack of adequate facilities. In particular, it wants restrictions on hotel building removed and more spending on Britain’s infrastructure, such as roads and ports. The CBI’s demand comes in a week when Britain’s hotels will be bursting at the seams with tourists.
London in particular faces its biggest test as up to 20,000 visitors arrive for an American lawyers’ conference and there are fears that many tourists with confirmed reservations could be ‘dumped’ out of overbooked hotels.
‘July will be the worst month,’ said David Cianfarani, a director of Anglo World Travel and vice-chairman of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association.
If they are full the hotels’ practice is to ‘book out’ guests to another hotel of equal or higher standard in the same area – in the trade it is called a ‘walk’. But the immense pressure on hotel space this year, particularly in London which will receive a record 8.8m foreign visitors, has meant that in some cases the ‘walk’ becomes a long ride.
One group of American tourists who had confirmed bookings in London for two days recently found themselves in Birmingham one night and Dover the next. A Danish tour operator had a group ‘booked out’ from London to Cambridge.
Hotels overbook for the same reason as airlines: the high percentage of ‘no shows’ by clients. This year, with the weak pound, the flood of early reservations from abroad led many hotels to overbook, expecting later cancellations which have often not materialized.
American Express, which is organizing the American Bar Association’s annual conference, has booked the lawyers and their families and friends into 100 hotels and says it has no difficulties. But other tour operators are complaining bitterly at the extra pressure on rooms and are expecting great difficulty in ‘booking out’ because alternative hotels are also full.
The tour companies claim that hoteliers are taking advantage of the demand for beds to cancel group bookings – which are made at a discount – and to charge higher rates for individual guests.
John Boon, chairman of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association, said: ‘There are always unprofessional hoteliers who want to make a fast buck or who make mistakes. But with the kind of year it has been, even the most professional may from time to time catch a little bit of a cold.’
The London Visitor and Convention Bureau reports that although the percentage of out-bookings among the capital’s 150,000 beds is small, and on some nights non-existent, ‘there must be several hundred people booked out on a bad night’.
Despite the practice affecting relatively few of the tourists to Britain, there are fears that it will damage the hoteliers’ image abroad.
There is pressure on rooms especially in London, because the number in the capital has remained static since the 1970s. As well as planning restrictions this is blamed on lack foresight, of the growth of tourism, individual boroughs; fear of ‘tourist pollution’ and the cost of new hotels – put at pounds 65,000 a room.
Nadeem Bibby, the manager of Nawas International, a tour operator, proposes drastic measures: ‘The government or the British Tourist Authority should not allow large conventions to take place during the peak season because this kills off the regular tourist business. They should take action to build more first-class and tourist hotels in central London. Otherwise it’s senseless to continue promoting Britain as a center of visual data.’
The English Tourist Board, now merged with the British Tourist Authority, presents its annual report on Thursday. Duncan Bluck, the chairman, will disclose figures pointing to another record year in 1985 for the industry, which last year enjoyed its highest number of visitors and spending.