Speaking at an Olympics conference hosted by sister publications M&C Report, BigHospitality, Morning Advertiser and Restaurant, Ufi Ibrahim highlighted a number of risks that urgently need to be addressed.
These included high VAT, high visa costs and air passenger duties, marketing and promotion cut-backs, and the need for better hospitality training.
“We have to think about this in terms of our competitiveness. Because what we’re talking about is not just the Games themselves in 2012, but a much longer timeline – we’re talking about four years beyond the Games in terms of being able to measure and capitalise on the opportunity,” she said.
“In competitive terms, UK tourism is operating with one hand tied behind its back, and this will become ever more damaging if we don’t do something about it.”
The UK’s high level of VAT – the second highest in Europe – already puts the country at a competitive disadvantage to other European countries, she said.
Increases in air passenger costs, high visa costs and the difficulties of completing visa forms are also deterring visitors from countries like China and India from visiting the UK, she said.
“At the moment, while China, India and Russia are growing in importance as being tourism source markets for the UK, only 3 per cent of international visitors coming to the UK are actually from those three countries.”
“We have not done a good job so far in attracting those visitors.”
“On the one hand we want to encourage tourism but on the other we make it extremely difficult and expensive to achieve this objective.”
Ibrahim also warned that the UK needs to improve its welcome from all sectors, including hotels, restaurants, retail and travel.
“Britain is on show so we must make sure that we provide a quality product with a quality service. “
“Will I come again? The answer must always be yes if we are to truly maximize the benefit of the Games.”
Don’t ignore Paralympics
Ibrahim also expressed concerns about the country’s readiness for the Paralympics, suggesting that insufficient attention has been paid to the needs of these Games.
“Most new hotels have in-built designs to help those with disabilities but more needs to be done to enable us to be confident that the industry as a whole can satisfactorily cope with the high level of demand generated by the Paralympics.”
Co-ordination and leadership
One of the biggest risks, she said, was the transition of Regional Development Agencies to Local Enterprise Partnerships and Destination Management Organisations.
“There is absolutely no co-ordination nationally in this and there is a grave danger that tourism will lose out in the reorganisation.”
Industry also needs leadership in order to fully achieve its Olympic potential and leave behind a legacy, she said.
“There’s a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Operators are really willing and excited and want to be able to participate, but we have to have leadership. And this needs to come from within a group of individuals who are close to the Games and understand what possibilities they hold for us.
“But who should this leadership come from? I’m told that it’s not Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) and that it should be the GLA (Greater London Authority) that we should be talking with to be able to define where this leadership is coming from.
“We feel like our hands are tied behind our backs and there’s nothing we can do because we’re not clear what to do to participate.”