Britain is wide open for tourists

Sports has become a major new draw.

Britain is very much open for business as usual as one of the world's top tourist destinations.

This is being spelled out by Mark Miller, head of the British Tourist Authority (BTA) regional office in Dubai, in reaction to the belief of a lot of people who appear misinformed about the foot and mouth epidemic at present affecting farm animals in Britain.

"The outbreak should not deter people from making a trip to London or other parts of Britain in general," he says.

"It does not get into the human food chain and has no effect on people."

An update on the latest foot and mouth epidemic situation is provided daily on the BTA's own website but only to keep people informed.

"It really has no effect on tourists at all," he stresses.

On tourism in general, Miller says it is important that Middle East visitors to Britain know they are catered for in many special ways.

"Religious requirements can be fully met and Arabic food is readily available. Also there are no language difficulties as signs and general information are available in Arabic. Also special arrangements can be made for extended groups of six and above," he said.

Tourist arrivals to Britain from the Gulf and the Middle East registered a steady two per cent increase in 1999.

The 2000 projection is another rise of at least one or two per cent, with the total visitors from the Middle East to Britain being 428,000 broken up into Saudi Arabia 114,000, UAE 101,000 and other GCC countries 103,000. Visitors from other Arab countries add up to 60,000 with an additional 50,000 from Egypt.

Miller points out that selling Britain to visitors from the Middle East is far removed from the days when London's history and pomp were the great attraction of the United Kingdom.

While London - with 56 per cent of visitors - is still the jewel in the tourist crown, many seasoned and educated travellers now seek more than Changing the Guards, Big Ben, Madame Tussaud's and a Thames river trip, heading increasingly for the popular and accessible regional areas.

From the Middle East, Emirates now flies daily to Birmingham. This means that Stratford on Avon, Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds are very accessible while Emirates flights to Manchester see the North West of England also easily reached including Blackpool. And of course Manchester will be host city for next year's Commonwealth Games.

"With good road and rail links and frequent internal flights as well, all parts of the United Kingdom are within easy reach with increasing interest in Northern Ireland, Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, as well as parts of Wales," says Miller.

"In this global world of travel people now know where Britain is and many seek more than just the capital including gardens, sports and general leisure and of course education steers a lot of people towards the United Kingdom. Shopping and medical visits also play a major role."

The average individual spending of Middle East visitors is more than 1,500 pound sterling per visit which is three times the average, putting regional visitors at the top of the Big Spenders League.

The policy of the BTA in Dubai is to promote Britain to all nationalities and not just to Arabs.

"Our priority is to promote Britain to people travelling from the Middle East and our sales figures show a breakdown of 15 per cent Arabs, 50 per cent Asians and 35 per cent other nationalities," he says.

"Our staff of six in Dubai cover the whole region, though our two main markets are the UAE and Saudi Arabia. We work with people in the travel trade, embassies and airlines through literature - in both English and Arabic - and private individuals and consumers also visit our office."

Miller says the BTA does not have a specific product other than Britain, and to help provide full information the Scottish, Northern Ireland, Welsh and London Tourist Boards are milestone partners, in addition to the English Tourism Council.

However global tourism is ever evolving, and new attractions which will appeal to many visitors include the 19 million pound Bath Spa project to be launched next year with the re-opening of the city's spas for the first time since 1978.

"With its state-of-the-art spa, world class architecture, museums, shopping and outstanding countryside Bath will offer the ideal environment for health tourists, with a growing number of people worldwide now combining vacations with the pursuit of health and well being," says Miller.