'Rather quiet and polite' tourism grilling livens up

When an MP finds time during parliamentary proceedings to tweet "Welsh affairs committee this morning is rather quiet and polite" a headline-hungry hack fears for the worst.

Guto Bebb tweeted his observation during this morning's meeting of the said committee, which is investigating how Wales is promoted overseas.

Within an hour, he was able to update his followers: "Now getting better. VAT on tourism under discussion. 20% is damaging our tourist trade."

The MPs took evidence this morning from Visit Britain, the body charged with promoting the UK to overseas visitors. It would also have taken evidence from its Welsh equivalent, but according to committee chair David Davies Visit Wales officials were blocked by a Welsh government minister.

The Monmouth MP said: "They weren't able to come in and see us for some reason that I'm trying to get to the bottom of, involving the minister I believe."

Welsh Minister for Business, Edwina Hart, told AMs recently: "We have submitted written evidence. That is the extent of the evidence we are likely to submit."

So what did the MPs learn? The value of tourism from Ireland, where Visit Britain doesn't promote Wales, has halved since the financial crisis to £25m a year. Head of strategy, David Bishop told the inquiry: "The reason that the Irish tourism market has fallen back so strongly is purely because the Irish economy has taken a huge nosedive in 2008 as a result of the implosion of its banks and a massive housing bubble."

He said an Irish decision to cut VAT on tourism, relax visa requirements and cut air passenger duty had had helped the Irish tourism industry. Some MPs are campaigning for a similar change in UK VAT rates for tourism. Guto Bebb said 20% was damaging our tourist trade, although a Labour opponent pointed out it was Mr Bebb's government that had increased the rate to 20%.

Mr Bishop said Visit Britain's GREAT campaign had brought more visitors to Wales. "Those who do recall the campaign are twice as likely to go to Wales as those who don't or haven't seen the campaign." There were likely to spend three times as many nights in Wales than those who hadn't seen the campaign or couldn't recall it, he said.

"Far from actually saying we are a miniscule part of what's going on, if you look at what we deliver for Wales in terms of international visitors versus what we deliver for the UK as a whole in terms of international visitors, actually we are doing much better in getting people to go to Wales, so it's a misreading of the evidence to suggest that we're not doing that.

"The fact of the matter is, as things currently stand, we are doing better for Wales than we are for the UK as a whole."

Wales had seen the fastest percentage growth in holiday visits of any constituent part of the UK. "The GREAT campaign absolutely is delivering for Wales."

Tory MP Guto Bebb told him: "That contradicts the Welsh government, which says the GREAT campaign does not offer a strong platform for tourism in Wales."

Mr Bebb later tweeted: "So what is the point of Visit Wales? Evidence this morning raises serious questions."

Asked if Edwina Hart met someone from Visit Britain regularly, Visit Britain strategy and communications director Patricia Yates replied: "Not to my knowledge." Ms Yates, who gave evidence to AMs in Cardiff recently, said the CEOs of the two organisations met regularly, but added: "We have to my knowledge never met the tourism minister."