Last week the party announced an eight-point plan to boost tourism - but just how seriously does it take the industry? We spoke to its deputy leader to find out
One could be forgiven for thinking tourism hasn’t always been a top priority for the Labour party. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the industry saw a succession of tourism ministers, who seemed to be moved on to a different department as soon as they had got to grips with the complexities of the industry.
Labour was also the party that introduced the much derided Air Passenger Duty (APD) - and who can forget its infamous U-turn on Heathrow expansion, when it scrapped support for a third runway within days of the Coalition taking office, despite it having been one of Labour’s flagship policies while in government.
So when Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman announced last week that tourism had been identified as a “winning sector”, none were perhaps more surprised than the travel industry.
When I catch up with Harman a day after her announcement however, she remains refreshingly passionate about the sector and adamant tourism will play a “key role in Labour’s plans for growth and jobs across the country”.
As if to demonstrate this seemingly newfound passion for the industry, she informs me she is en route to visit a £70 million regeneration programme in Buxton to meet with local council leaders, in an example of how Labour plans to support local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships in boosting local tourism.
I, however, am more keen to talk about Labour’s plans for the outbound tourism industry - and why there is the glaring omission of APD from the eight-point tourism plan.
In the style of a true politician, before I have a chance to begin the interview, Harman opens with an impassioned speech on how seriously Labour takes the industry.
“People are always saying how are we going to pay the way for the future, and one big answer to that is tourism. I believe we need to have government backing and co-ordination across departments to improve visa granting and improve transport and education.
“We know that there needs to be additional airport capacity. The dithering has been going on for too long”
“Tourism is absolutely a winning sector - it provides three million jobs and it could be more than that. It’s a growth sector. Internationally many more people will become tourists and the UK should be one of the foremost destinations.”
Unsurprisingly, Harman doesn’t believe the coalition is currently doing enough to boost the industry. “I asked [tourism minister] Helen Grant a question this morning in the House of Commons [on what she is doing to ensure her department leads the rest of government to deliver for the tourism industry], and I just felt her answer lacked ambition. The government should share an ambition for tourism.”
So what of Labour’s ambitions for outbound tourism, and more specifically airport capacity in the UK?
“We do know that there needs to be additional airport capacity - the dithering has been going on for too long,” Harman replies frankly. She does however concede that any move on airport expansion is likely to be contentious.
“It will be controversial whichever way the decision goes,” she acknowledges. “But air travel is important and will continue to be more so.
“Airlines do need to do more to limit the environmental impact - but it can’t go on [how it is]. We need to end the dithering and delay and make a commitment.”
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I remind Harman that the industry is equally as keen to have some form of commitment about APD. “We do keep everything under review,” she says, before hinting that the party may examine other ways of implementing the tax.
“We’re looking at how we can support airports outside London and what the scope might be for that. There are a number of measures that include APD… some people propose there should be a different [APD] rate outside London.
“So yes, we will definitely keep it under review as well as all other issues of tax - we’ll be working with Bis [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills], the DfT and the Treasury - we need to work together to back the industry.
“The travel industry shouldn’t have to approach all different departments about one same issue,” she adds. “Helen Grant seems to have no sense of that.”
Harman might not be Grant’s biggest fan, however the tourism minister impressed delegates at June’s ITT conference with her knowledge of the sector.
There is still concern though, that the portfolio is shared with the larger role of sports minister. I quiz Harman as to whether Labour would commit to having a minister solely dedicated to tourism.
“I can’t make ministerial decisions,” she says, “but we would be committed to cross-government machinery lead by DCMS [the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in which tourism sits].
“The expertise and advice an agent can give is invaluable. I’m hopelessly dependent on my travel agent”
“The tourism industry needs a real commitment from DCMS, which is what we would have. I can’t promise [that we would have a sole tourism minister], but we would absolutely take tourism more seriously as an industry than the government does currently.”
At this point Harman makes it clear she is keen to start wrapping the interview up, telling me she does not want to keep the council leaders waiting. However no TTG interview would be complete without the obligatory question - “do you use a travel agent”?
“Absolutely!” she replies, with gusto. “The internet is amazing, but the expertise and advice an agent can give is invaluable. I’m hopelessly dependent on my travel agent.”
A consummate politician, Harman may have been proffering answers she knew the industry would want to hear, but her belief that tourism remains a “winning sector” seems genuine. Whether Labour will ever be given the opportunity to demonstrate this in government is, of course, another matter.