Speakers at the British Hospitality Association's inaugural Hospitality & Tourism Summit united in calling on government to act swiftly and decisively to enable the UK to compete in the race to draw greater inbound tourism from emerging markets.
Minster for Tourism and Heritage John Penrose told delegates at the InterContinental London Park Lane that the job of supporting UK hospitality was already "half-done".
But other speakers disagreed, and called on the Government to make visa applications easier for foreign tourists and to bring down VAT on hospitality businesses.
Sir David Michels, chairman of Michels & Taylor LLP, told summit delegates that the UK was currently 134th on the list of fiscal competitiveness for hospitality.
"There are only two or three places in China where you can apply for a British visa - and you need to apply in person", he said. "Should we really be proud to be the 10th best [tourism] brand in the world?"
Deputy London Mayor for Business and Enterprise Kit Malthouse agreed, saying: "We need to get tourists into the UK quickly, easily and cheaply. The visa problem needs solving; and we do need a Heathrow that works."
Merlin Entertainment chief executive Nick Varney asked why the Government was making it hard for the very tourism markets it hoped to tap into to get into the UK.
Varney called on the Government to place hospitality under the remit of the Business Department rather than the "second class" DCMS.
And he accused it of engaging "at a glacial pace" on the question of a VAT cut, predicting that slashing the rate to 5% would be tax-accretive and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Penrose emphasised the need for vigilance around awarding visas. "Security and a good welcome are two sides of the same coin", he warned.
The British Hospitality Association estimates that a reduction in VAT to 5% and a streamlined visa application process could contribute towards creating 236,000 new jobs by 2015.
By Mark Lewis
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