Big Interview: David Cameron

The former PM delivered an uncompromising message to global travel leaders at the World Travel & Tourism Council Summit in Bangkok. Afterwards, he spoke to Ian Taylor

David Cameron might be the most tourism‑aware prime minister in Britain’s history. Yet his message to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Summit was of the industry’s need to be more aware of politics.

“Your industry needs to understand the vast pressure on governments to deal with immigration,” he told travel and tourism leaders.

“Do not underestimate the concerns voters have about terrorists’ ability to travel. You have to accept you’re going to see greater use of technology at borders.”

Cameron told Travel Weekly: “Governments want secure borders and to crack down on illegal migration, but governments also want an increase in tourist numbers spending money in their economies.

“So we need to work with the industry to find technical and technological solutions to these problems. They’re all doable. Let’s not have an argument, let’s have a constructive dialogue. If we understand each other, we’ll get the right answer.”

The former prime minister’s message on borders differed from that of WTTC president and chief executive David Scowsill, who told the summit: “People need to be able to cross international borders freely and easily… visa reform is the biggest single step any government can take.”

Cameron said: “We had a good conversation about this. My message to David Scowsill was that we understand why you would push for more travel, fewer visa restrictions and more open borders. As you do so, let’s try to have a constructive dialogue about how we find solutions.

“Britain has visa-free travel to some countries. But if you’re arguing, ‘Let’s have visa-free travel from everywhere’, that is not going to happen. Let’s be realistic and try to have more biometric visas and more biometric data. Let’s get countries to accept biometric data and we can speed things up.”

Travel advisories

Government travel advisories come in for consistent criticism from destinations, the WTTC and UN World Tourism Organisation. Yet Cameron defended the system and the continuing UK advice against flights to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Addressing the summit, he said: “We do understand the effect on travel and the country itself.”

Cameron told Travel Weekly: “Our travel advice is the responsibility of the Foreign Office. It’s done on the basis of evidence and expert advice. It is differentiated so, for instance, you can look at the map of Egypt and see the area we advise you can travel to and the areas we advise against all but essential travel to. And it is regularly updated.

“I ask the industry for some understanding. Of course, we want to see an expansion of tourism. Of course, we know how important tourism is to Egypt’s economy. But we have to put public safety first.

“Let’s take Egypt: for many years British tourists continued to go to Sharm el-Sheikh long after others stopped. Even today, Britain is still the number two or number three in terms of Western travellers to Egypt, and we have lots of flights to Egyptian airports.

“Obviously, the Sharm situation is ongoing in terms of flights. I’m hoping it can be resolved. I know how difficult this is, but it’s a process we have to get right.”

Power of tourism

Cameron suggested the level of interest he showed in travel and tourism while prime minister was rare. He told the summit: “I got into office in May 2010 and made a speech about tourism in August.”

That was certainly unprecedented in Britain. Cameron told Travel Weekly: “I had five years as leader of the opposition, so I had lots of time to think about the job I wanted to do.

“I’ve always believed in the power of tourism. I’m a tourist myself – I’ve travelled and holidayed extensively around the UK, but also around the world. I’m a believer in the power of the industry to create jobs.”

When he became prime minister, Cameron said: “I had already been convinced. I felt Britain wasn’t making enough of what it had, and I still don’t think it is. There are so many people who just come to London, who don’t go outside. That is what the ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign is about.”

The campaign was launched in 2012 with government funding and a mix of public and private sector partners and aimed to capitalise on interest generated by the London Olympics and Paralympics.

Cameron said: “There is still lots to do. We’ve got to make sure the quality of service, transport links, infrastructure and integration of these are properly in place. There are huge opportunities.”

There is also still a job to do in convincing politicians of the value of the sector. He said: “I don’t think it is understood by everybody. A lot of politicians look up to the automotive industry or science or manufacturing. Tourism needs to make the argument that, when it comes to job creation – and rapid job creation – it is right up there.

“To do that, the tourism industry has to emphasise not only the rapidity with which it can create jobs, but also to talk about quality.

“In Britain, tourism jobs were seen for a long time as not necessarily of the highest quality. I don’t think that is fair. If you take what has happened to the restaurant trade in Britain, it has gone from being a sort of also-ran to world class. We need to ensure all of our tourist industries undergo that sort of transformation.”

Skills imperative

Cameron’s government’s was behind the introduction from April of both a UK national living wage and a levy to fund apprenticeships.

Asked whether he was surprised at the level of opposition from some in the UK industry, particularly in the hospitality sector, he said: “People are always nervous of change. We want to demonstrate that hospitality can be a high-wage, high-quality, high-training, career-opportunity industry. Lots of other countries get that. We need to demonstrate that.

“The minimum wage helps. It helps with the broader question of, ‘Are we benefiting from global growth or are people being left behind?’ It also helps industries that were relying on low pay topped up by benefits, where they should be concentrating on how to demonstrate that these careers are good careers.”

He insisted: “You have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. If you want the country to be a success, you’ve got to have a combination of low taxes and highquality education and training.

“Businesses have to play their role in helping to deliver the successful globalised economy that Britain or anywhere else needs.

“It isn’t unfair to have a deal with business where we say: ‘We’ll deliver the lowest corporation tax in Europe but at the same time we want you to help us deliver the highly skilled and trained workforce that is good for you and good for us.’”

Before becoming Prime Minister, Cameron made climate change a key part of the Conservative Party programme for office. I ask whether he was satisfied with the progress made and how concerned he is about the situation today.

Referring to the Cop21 climate agreement in Paris in December 2015, he said: “We made huge progress with Paris. It was a huge global achievement at which Britain played its part.

“In Britain, we demonstrated you can grow the economy and cut carbon emissions.

“I’m proud of the record we have – the world’s first green investment bank, 98% of Britain’s solar panels installed while I was PM. We cut carbon emissions by government by 15%. We showed it can be done.”

But he added: “Frankly, I am worried that the new US administration is not prioritising the issue. This is an argument where Britain should not stand aside.

“The tourist industry will suffer from man-made climate change if it isn’t reversed. Don’t stand aside. Get involved in the argument.”

The former prime minister on …

Border controls
“Your industry needs to understand the pressure on governments to deal with immigration.”

“If you’re arguing, ‘Let’s have visa-free travel from everywhere’, that is not going to happen.”

Travel advice to Sharm
“We know how important tourism is to the Egyptian economy, but we have to put public safety first.”

“I’m a believer in the power of the industry to create jobs.”

Lobbying government
“The industry has to emphasise not only the rapidity with which it can create jobs but also [the] quality.”

Climate change
“The tourist industry will suffer from man-made climate change if it isn’t reversed. Don’t stand aside.”

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