The boss of attractions giant Merlin Entertainments has attacked the government’s tourism strategy, describing its policy on visas as a “joke”.

Nick Varney, chief executive of the Legoland and Alton Towers operator, ridiculed its international marketing campaign to draw visitors to Britain.

His attack came as tourism agency VisitBritain outlined plans to attract an extra 40 million visitors by 2020.

Varney accused prime minister David Cameron of watering down his commitment to tourism in the reshuffle. Former tourism minister John Penrose left the government with his his portfolio taken on by sports minister Hugh Robertson.

Varney said VisitBritain was doing “a pretty good job”, but the government had ignored evidence from the industry showing that, if the UK charged VAT on visitor attractions at the same rate as most other European countries, it would create 80,000 jobs.

He added that the hassles of getting a UK visa and its costs, compared with the more easily obtainable Schengen visa, which covers 24 countries, was another “elephant in the room” for tourism.

“The UK visa policy is a joke,” he told the Financial Times.

“Now, I don’t think this government is taking tourism any more seriously than the previous government did.”

Efforts to promote tourism included a campaign promoting the UK in cities abroad. But Varney said he believed it had done nothing to attract visitors.

He said: “I saw a lot of posters when I flew to Shanghai and Sydney but people looking at them would have thought, ‘What on earth was that poster about?’ ”