Minister for sports and tourism Hugh Robertson made a strong hint last night that the government was about to ease the visa application process to boost tourism to the UK.
Speaking at the VisitBritain annual review, Roberston, whose role as sports minister was expanded to include tourism less than three months ago, said he hoped to have news about visa reform "in the very near future".
Robertson was an outspoken critic of the visa system when his party were in opposition, complaining to the then Foreign Secretary that British embassies overseas were taking too long to process work visas.
At the time, the MP for Faversham and Mid Kent was concerned that delays were causing a shortage of immigrant farm workers on which his constituents depended, but he is equally aware of how the lengthy visa application process can damage inbound tourism.
However, Robertson also warned delegates from the tourism industry that they could be damaging the image of the UK overseas with their high profile campaign against air passenger duty.
"When the tourism industry criticises APD, it is a message that goes abroad," he said. "We must put our best face in our shop window."
He attempted to reassure delegates that the government values the tourism industry, despite Prime Minister David Cameron's decision not to appoint another dedicated tourism minister following the resignation of John Penrose after the Olympic Games.
"There is not anyone in the Government who does not take this seriously," he said.
VisitBritain chairman Christopher Rodrigues said latest statistics show tourism accounted for a third of all new jobs created in the past two years. It is also a crucial source of employment for young people, with 44% of those working in tourism under the age of 30, he said.
Last year, Britain was the seventh most popular destination in the world for visitors, he said, but the country's popularity is waning. "The US is trying to attract 100 million visitors a year by 2021; we have to meet this challenge head on," he said.
VisitBritain is targeting a 9 million increase in tourists to a total of 40 million a year by the end of the decade which, if it is successful, will create an additional 200,000 jobs, added Rodrigues.
VisitBritain's overseas marketing campaign on the back of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee generated £503m worth of bookings this year, according to an independent review, he said.
Spending in the 12 months to September reached a record £18.7 billion, a year-on-year growth of 5%.
By Linsey McNeill
Friday, November 30, 2012