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Brits more tempted by a ‘near away’

Legoland in southern England.

Legoland in southern England.

Published Feb 17, 2014

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London - Huge investment in the tourism industry has turned it into Britain’s fastest-growing employment sector – attracting record spending by visitors from home and abroad.

A new hotel opens every ten days and more than 100 000 new hotel rooms have become available in the past decade, in addition to extensive refurbishment of existing properties at an estimated cost of £20-billion.

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Figures from the UK tourist board VisitBritain estimated that tourism spending last year hit £113-billion, of which £24-billion came from foreign tourists and £89-million from the domestic market.

Ufi Ibrahim, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association said: “The hospitality and tourism sector has continued to grow, create jobs and flourish, in spite of the economic challenges of the past few years. Businesses have concentrated their efforts on enhancing the visitor experience. Meanwhile there is impressive and high-profile investment.”

The kind of high-profile investment he is referring to is taking place in Bedfordshire. Hundreds of construction workers are building the latest Center Parcs complex, near Flitwick, in the heart of a forest. Inside a 65ft-high dome, hundreds more were last week creating its ‘sub-tropical swimming paradise’ and fitting out restaurants and sports facilities.

Such a project doesn’t come cheap: Center Parcs’ US owner, private equity firm Blackstone, has invested £250-million in the 365-acre site, which opens in spring. Center Parcs chief executive Martin Dalby expects 350 000 holidaymakers to visit every year.

But it isn’t just Center Parcs that is investing heavily in making Britain a holiday destination for the domestic market. Merlin Entertainments has been spending millions on its theme parks, such as Legoland Windsor and Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey, both of which have recently added hotels.

Smaller independent operators have also been upgrading their premises, such as the Dormy House Hotel, at Broadway in the Cotswolds, which last week completed a £10-million refurbishment. It is part of the Pride of Britain hotels chain. Chief executive Peter Hancock said: “Our hotels have been seeing visitor numbers grow every year since 2009. The corporate market has started to revive and overseas bookings are also increasing. The green shoots in our sector are very strong.”

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The budget sector is also flourishing thanks to investments by Travelodge and Whitbread’s Premier Inn.

Over the past two years the hospitality industry generated 153 000 new jobs, according to the British Hospitality Association, accounting for 28 percent of all new jobs created in that period, making it the fastest-growing sector in employment terms. Hospitality is now responsible for 2.68 million jobs – 10 percent of the total workforce – and is Britain’s fourth-largest industry.

David Cameron is likely to welcome all this activity, if not the row surrounding Center Parcs. He has said he wants to see Britain in the top-five world destinations – it is eighth at the moment – and to increase the proportion of domestic tourism from 36 percent to 50 percent.

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“I love going on holiday in Britain,” he said. “I’ve holidayed in Snowdonia, South Devon and North Cornwall, the Lake District, Norfolk, the Inner Hebrides, the Highlands of Scotland and the canals of Staffordshire.”

Cheap air travel may have begun luring the British abroad in the 1960s, but the worldwide recessions of 2001-2 and 2008-9 created a new concept, the “staycation”. The UK leisure sector poured millions into trying to compete with sunnier climes.

However, the staycation effect is fragile – the terrible summer weather in 2012 led to a rush of last-minute overseas bookings.

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Britain has yet to achieve Cameron’s target. According to critics, it is being held back by uncompetitive prices, driven up by high air passenger duty rates, VAT and fuel prices. This is compounded by delays in the streamlining of foreign visas and the fact that holidaying overseas can be cheaper than in the UK, especially since the all-inclusive package’s comeback.

Overseas spending by British holidaymakers increased last year, while domestic tourism was flat.

The domestic market remains undaunted, though. The big trend of this year? The “near away” where you holiday less than an hour’s drive from your home. - Mail On Sunday

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