Steak and chips cost 75p, Honky Tonk Women was at the top of the charts and Britain was enjoying a tourist boom.
The annual tally of overseas visitors had shot up to an all-time record of 5 million and they were spending a grand total of £355 million making tourism the UK’s fourth-biggest generator of foreign exchange. That was the situation 50 years ago this month. But if tourism had become a key plank of the economy, who was in charge? For years, it had been left to an outfit called The British Travel and Holidays Association — largely made up of hoteliers and caterers — to promote a simple message: ‘Come to Britain’.
In August 1969, the Government decided the time had come to make tourism a proper industry.
Changing vision: In August 1969, a new Development Of Tourism Act came into effect, creating state-funded tourist boards or England, Scotland and Wales. Pictured is a vintage advertising campaign.
Then and now: Visitors numbers have now hit an all-time high – next year is on course to be the first when Britain welcomes 40 million tourists. Pictured are tourists in London
A new Development Of Tourism Act came into effect, creating state-funded tourist boards for England, Scotland and Wales under the auspices of a new British Tourist Authority.
So, in honour of the 50th birthday of modern tourism, we offer a shamelessly nostalgic look at what was on offer half a century ago — and what has changed in the meantime.
B&B for £2.50
Some things seem barely recognisable today, not least the prices: 3p for a cup of tea at the National Gallery, 15p for a ham sandwich and £2.50 for bed and breakfast at London’s Lancaster Gate Hotel. And imagine the furore if anyone tried to replicate some of those early ad campaigns — featuring fox hunts or air stewardesses imploring the reader to ‘Fly Me’.
But some things have never lost their appeal.
Then, as now, the world loved a castle, a Cotswold village, British culture and the Royal Family. It’s hard to find any major UK promotion in the past 50 years which has not featured a Beefeater, a Guardsman, the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace.
The Fawlty effect
Capital cool: In 1969 Mods, hippies and ‘dedicated followers of fashion’ flocked to London
The big concern back in 1969 was a lack of hotel rooms. Could Britain cope with any more visitors? The BTA’s first annual report noted that while there were huge opportunities from two exciting new modes of transport — the Jumbo jet and the roll-on/roll-off ferry — Britain needed to up its standards. Otherwise there would be no repeat business.
‘If Britain can be opened up to more visitors from overseas by better hotels, caravan and camping sites . . .then Britain should certainly be able to welcome in the mid-Seventies 10 million tourists in a way that should make them want to return,’ it stated. ‘It is this wish to return that is one of the essential conditions of continuing success.’
The new tourism chiefs had identified another key priority: ‘We, the inhabitants of these islands, also should want our overseas visitors to come back.’ In other words, we needed to be less Fawlty Towers and more friendly.
Caravans of love: Traffic jams snaked the coast as the number of cars on Britain’s streets topped 10 million in 1974
A popular image on those early posters and ad campaigns was of a bearded Highlander in his kilt helping lost travellers or playing the bagpipes. He was always leaning on a stick and pointing in to the far distance.
In 1969, he was next to Eilean Donan Castle in Ross and Cromarty, pointing the way to a pair of lovebirds in an open-top sports car. By 1979, it was a different chap in a different kilt and in a different place — Loch Shiel — but he was still leaning on his stick and pointing the way to a young couple who looked like Fred and Daphne off Scooby-Doo.
English tourist chiefs favoured the welcoming country pub look — with an identical couple enjoying a roaring fire or an alfresco pint. There would usually be a friendly yokel on hand cracking a joke, or a jolly landlord offering to help out with the luggage.
The strategy paid off. By 1974, tourists were spending more than £1 billion in a year for the first time. The next year, Britain did, indeed, meet that target of 10 million overseas tourists.
The following year, the figure was up to more than 12 million. There were dips as Britain entered the Eighties, thanks to VAT rises, rampant inflation and a strong pound.
Retro delights: In 1979 hotel started revamping menus – the classic prawn cocktail was a favourite
Trains take the strain: In 1984 faster InterCity trains have us whizzing about 125mph
Yet by 1984, a new record was set as nearly 14 million tourists spent £5 billion, putting Britain on a par with Italy and France for the first time. By now, the BTA was doing detailed market research. In Norway, for example, Britain was popular with ‘educated and high-earning women in their 30s who want to travel to the UK with other women to escape their husbands, boyfriends and families’.
In 1994 festival fever struck. Glastonbury was televised and festivals – and muddy tents – went mainstream
Koreans were drawn by ‘aristocrats, bobbies and other traditional images of the British’, including ‘taxi drivers and the Royal Family’.
However, the BTA annual report observed that the Taiwanese were ‘more interested in places than people’. Yet the Highlander was still to be found pointing away next to yet another castle (albeit with grey hair).
British food, so long an international joke, was fast becoming a selling point. In 1990, Britain launched a new Goutez l’autre Europe — ‘Taste the other Europe’ — campaign in France, featuring platters of exciting British produce (next to the mandatory castle, of course).
However, other parts of the world remained wedded to our old world charms. ‘Come face to face with Queens, Dukes, Earls and Lords,’ was the slogan for a joint advertising campaign with Pan-Am Holidays.
The advent of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997 saw a major shift towards a Cool Britannia image. Britain started to promote itself through pop bands and fashion designers.
By the millennium, numbers were up to 25 million tourists, but then came what the BTA called its annus horribilis.
The 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease followed by the 9/11 terrorist atrocities led to the loss of 2 million visitors and £1.5 billion in tourist revenues.
The Blairite obsession with rebranding saw the end of the British Tourist Authority which was relaunched as Visit Britain (and then rebranded again as one word, VisitBritain).
Try as they might, however, the modernisers had to accept that the world still loved the old Britain. Tourism promotions might trumpet Harry Potter, the London Eye and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, but the literature was still full of red Routemaster buses and telephone boxes.
Gone glamping: In 2009 yurts and treehouses suddenly became cool
The cover of the 2003 Inside Britain brochure for Australia showed a Cornish harbour, a steam train and a cricket match in front of a stately home. So much for Cool Britannia.
The numbers kept rising. By 2006, Britain was welcoming visitors at a rate of more than one every second — 33 million in the course of a year. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, a new global campaign, ‘GREAT Britain — You’re Invited’, was launched by the coalition government and has been going ever since.
Niche campaigns have also been organised on wide-ranging themes such as Downton Abbey, the Premier League, gay Britain, Chinese Britain, literary Britain and Roald Dahl.
Back to nature: The pursuit of well-being in 2019 has brought a boom in hiking holidays
Numbers have now hit an all-time high, so much so that next year is on course to be the first when Britain welcomes 40 million visitors.
The biggest consumers, by far, remain ourselves. Last year, we spent £19 billion on domestic holidays and a whopping £50 billion on day trips.
For all the domestic doom and gloom, Brexit has had minimal impact on the UK as a destination for foreign tourists. Rather, the weakened pound pushed visitor spending to almost £25 billion in 2017-18.
By any standards, that is an astonishing increase on the £355 million they were spending 50 years ago. Happy birthday, British tourism!
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