Mr Rodrigues, Ladies and Gentlemen, as Patron of the inaugural British Tourism Week, I could not be more pleased to be here today to celebrate one of this country’s great success stories.
I cannot think of a better place to host this event than here in the Tower of London, one of Britain’s most enduring and distinctive places, and to which tourists flock in their thousands - mostly to see the famous Yeoman Warders, as far as I can make out!
Of course, tourism is about far more than the big attractions. Hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and other attractions are just as important and play a crucial role in an industry worth nearly £75 billion and employing nearly one and a half million people. Indeed, tourism is our fifth biggest industry and in areas, such as Cumbria, the South West of England or the Highlands, it is far and away the most important.
That is one reason why I am so pleased that British food and drink has been served today – and I am particularly pleased to see some old friends amongst the slower food producers here. Over the years I have invested a considerable amount of time and energy trying to persuade consumers of the importance of “eating the view”, and farmers that they need to become better at telling the story of the food they produce.
Perhaps, at last, it is becoming more urgently apparent how vital it is to reconnect people to where their food comes from and to the land – or seas - from which it is produced. This is the only way in which we can ensure a healthy agricultural economy and help to retain those family farmers who care for our precious landscapes and countryside, making them – and this is the point - some of our most valuable tourist attractions.
As someone who very happily returns year after year to stay in a particularly fine bed and breakfast in the Fells of Cumbria (the consequence of going there originally just after the Foot and Mouth disaster to encourage the return of tourists), I can tell you just how important tourism is to these upland areas where life for farmers is very tough indeed. So we must do everything we can to celebrate and enhance the local food communities and cultures that exist in rural areas.
But what you will also know better than me is the importance of training and, particularly instilling the need to give the highest quality of service to visitors. This means not just courtesy and good manners – always, you would think, a helpful adjunct for a civilized existence - but quality of accommodation, food and cleanliness. These are challenges that I know the industry accepts and are determined to meet.
While, of course, the tourist industry is keen to attract visitors from abroad, I can only hope that every effort will be made to remind the people of this country just what wonderful opportunities for holidays they have on their doorsteps, without having to leave our shores.
In this particular place, steeped in history as it is and a World Heritage Site recognized by UNESCO, perhaps you would forgive me for adding a footnote about the special heritage of historic buildings – and, indeed the importance of their immediate surroundings - that we are fortunate enough to enjoy in this country.
Survey after survey remind us of the importance people rightly attach to our historic buildings. A report published by our Heritage organizations earlier this year gathered together many striking statistics: 87 per cent of people think that the historic environment plays an important part in the cultural life of the country; almost 70 per cent of people visit historic sites at least once a year; while 72 per cent of tourists from Russia and 66 per cent of those from China say that castles, churches, monuments and historic houses are top of their list of things to visit in Britain.
But we need to remember that the places people come to see require ongoing maintenance and care provided by highly skilled people. Such skills are in desperate short supply and I would hope that the tourism sector could help in the urgent struggle to rectify this situation. These special buildings built by craftsmen to last, tell so many stories about generations of our ancestors, as well as making our country a more interesting and distinctive place to visit.
The same can be said of the ceremonial duties performed by our Armed Forces. Some years ago there was another piece of research done by the London Tourist Board showing that nearly 70 per cent of all London tourists see the Foot Guards here at the Tower of London and nearly 50 per cent see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This country is blessed with special and unique assets which are highly valued around the world and I would have thought it sensible to take the greatest possible care of them.
If I may, I would just like to end by thanking Stephen Dowd and the Council of British Tourism Week; Christopher Rodrigues, Tom Wright and the team at VisitBritain for the work they undertake around the clock and around the world for Britain, but especially, if I might say so, for your organization of today’s event and this first British Tourism Week, which I am delighted to launch.