Leaving the EU: Devaluing the brand will damage tourism to the UK

Leaving the EU: UK Tourism (12th October 2016)

Kevin Brennan MP: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate Nigel Huddleston on securing this important debate, and I thank every hon. Member who has contributed. Some excellent points have been made by the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Wells (James Heappey), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and by the SNP spokesman, John Nicolson.

It says something about the significant ramifications of Brexit that we are debating its impact on tourism. One would not normally think a constitutional referendum would lead to us debating the future of the UK tourism industry, so it is quite a surprise that it has come to this, but it shows how important the Brexit vote is to the future of the industry.

As has been pointed out, there has actually been a short-term boost to the tourism industry since the Brexit referendum. Despite the weather over the past few months, tourism in the UK has gone up; visitor numbers from outside the UK have risen since June 23. This July saw a 1% increase compared with the same period last year, while the number of staycations—visitors from inside the UK—has also risen since June. That is important. As hon. Members have said, tourism is an important industry that accounts for 9% of the UK’s employment.

The principal reason for that increase in tourist numbers in recent months is the weakness of the pound, which has been caused by both the impact of the Brexit vote itself and, I am afraid, by the Government’s mishandling of the aftermath of the vote. With each faltering step in their handling of Brexit, the pound has devalued further. Yesterday, its value against the US dollar dropped to below $1.23. On UK visitors who are going to Europe on holiday, one of our colleagues was in Venice recently taking a hard-earned short break away from his constituency, and he told me he was getting parity when exchanging the pound for the euro while he was there.

Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan: I will in a moment. What is not clear—perhaps the hon. Gentleman can clear this up for me—is whether the Government want a weaker pound.

Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay: If we want to talk about how things went over the summer, I must say it was a real spectacle to observe the hon. Gentleman’s own party.

I was actually going to be slightly more positive and constructive and say that one reason why people see places such as Torbay as great places to come to is that we are a safe and welcoming country and do not have some of the issues that exist in other nations.

Kevin Brennan: I will come on to that, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that changing the subject because he has a weak argument is not always the most powerful way to make his point. We are talking about tourism and the tourism industry. I praise Torbay—I spent many happy weeks enjoying holidays there as a child and a young man, and it is a wonderful destination.

My question is this: is the new weak pound—trading at parity with the euro in recent days, as I said—now the Government’s economic policy? Following Brexit, are the Conservatives now the party of devaluation? Surely not, because I thought stable, sound money and a strong, stable pound, with the discipline that brings to productivity, was one of the central principles of a Conservative Government. Apparently not. Hon. Members will have heard at Scotland Office questions today—I am sure they were all there—the Secretary of State for Scotland bragging about record numbers of people coming to this year’s Edinburgh Festival as a result of being attracted by the weak pound. Perhaps the Minister will confirm at the end of the debate that a weak pound is Government policy.

The effect on the pound is not the only impact of Brexit. Until the Government decide how freedom of movement is going to be reformed when we leave the EU, and how and whether those measures—[Interruption.] Kevin Foster is free to intervene again if he wants to, rather than chuntering on from a sedentary position. Until the Government decide how and whether those measures will affect tourist entry into the UK, Britain’s accessibility as a tourist destination carries a lingering question mark, given that 73% of foreign visitors to the UK in 2015 were from Europe. Any uncertainty of that kind left unaddressed is extremely unhelpful. That point has been made by Conservative Members, though perhaps not in the way I would have made it.

Another concerning issue that has been mentioned is the importance of EU workers to the tourism sector. As has been said, tourism-related industries account for 9% of UK employment, and quite a high proportion of those workers are non-UK citizens, particularly in London. The Association of British Travel Agents and Deloitte published a report prior to the referendum outlining the potential consequences of Brexit on tourism, which stated that limits to the sector’s ability to employ people from outside the UK could lead to real difficulties in filling roles. It also found:

“Restrictions on employing EU nationals might thus exacerbate existing skills shortages. Ultimately this could have a detrimental effect on the sectors’  ability to serve consumers at the standard they expect.”

James Heappey Conservative, Wells: I agree with the shadow Minister. One of the advantages of the EU migrant workforce has been to provide a range of linguistic skills in a lot of our hotels and conference venues. If we are going to lose that, we could really do with some better language training in schools to replace it.

Kevin Brennan: I hope we are not going to lose it. I think we can have both, and that ought to be our aim going forward. I do not think the hon. Gentleman intended to say in any way that those people should be sent home and that we should, over a period of time, train their replacements. Of course we should improve language skills in our schools, and of course we should get more UK citizens to fill jobs in the tourism industry, but it is equally important that we do not suggest that we do not welcome diversity in our tourism industry in this country.

One problem is that some of the Government’s post-Brexit messaging is potentially damaging to Britain’s blue chip brand. At the Conservative party conference we saw the Home Secretary seriously announce, at least in the headlines, a misguided policy of publicly listing foreign workers. The Government have subsequently clumsily withdrawn that, but we have seen all this before. I have seen this movie many times over: at the Conservative party conference, Ministers announce right-wing policies that deliver plenty of tabloid headlines and claps in the conference hall, but then inevitably row back from that extreme position in subsequent days. The problem is that their message is heard, not just in Britain but overseas.

I am afraid that xenophobic sentiment, at the service of inflamed rhetoric to generate a lurid headline, keep the tabloid editors happy and send out a dog whistle to the right, is an ugly thing. Shame on the Home Secretary for risking Britain’s reputation abroad for hospitality and tolerance for a few moments of glory on the front pages of the redtops. That sort of behaviour not only damages Britain’s brand abroad but ultimately short-changes the British public. In the long run, British tourism will thrive not on the attractiveness of our weather but on the attractiveness of our welcome. It will thrive not because Britain is cheap because of the weak pound, but because Britain is rich in culture, heritage and hospitality. British tourism will flourish not by shrinking to little England slogans but by confidently projecting a greater Britain with a warm and open welcome to visitors to all of its parts—to Wales, to Northern Ireland, to Scotland and to England—often through the gateway of one of the world’s most diverse cities, London.

Coming from Cardiff, I should mention before I finish that the Champions League final will take place there next year, and we hope that the road to Cardiff will lead to many visitors coming from overseas. UK tourism needs greater clarity from the Government on Brexit and clearer messaging that we are open and welcoming to the world, and that we want people from across the world to come here to enjoy our heritage, our countryside, our modern cities and sometimes even our weather, but most of all to feel that they are welcome. Devaluing the pound may work to the tourism sector’s advantage for now, but devaluing our brand as a country will do the opposite. If that continues, it will cause lasting damage to our reputation and to our vital tourism industry.