Tourism and Soft Power

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” So said the American novelist Mark Twain, in his 1869 travel book, The Innocents Abroad. There is an innate truth to this. Nothing quite shapes your opinion or challenges your preconception of a country and its people like visiting it.

Travel connects people and places whilst immersing the traveller in another society and culture. It influences the perceptions of foreign audiences and communicates the cultural and governance attributes that make a country admirable and worthy of emulation. Mark Twain himself fell in love with Britain during his first trip in 1872 and continued to do so for the rest of his life.

Tourism is therefore an important component of soft power – the ability to influence the preferences of international actors and affect foreign policy outcomes through the attractiveness of your culture and values. In our hyper-connected world where civil society, cities and NGOs are increasingly important actors, soft power plays a vital role in multiplying Britain’s influence overseas and increases the likelihood of success in its foreign policy objectives.

As the UK’s strategic body for inbound tourism, VisitBritain promotes Britain as a great place to visit and create compelling narratives about Britain’s culture, heritage and countryside. As such we are a major partner in the GREAT Campaign, have a global network of offices and work closely with the FCO, Department for International Trade, and the British Council to promote the nations and regions of Britain overseas.

Tourism is worth £126.9 billion to Britain’s economy, it is our third largest service export, and in 2016 we welcomed 37.6 million people to the UK – the best year on record. Successfully promoting Britain as a great place to visit also influences whether we are viewed as a good place to study or invest. People who enjoy their holidays in Britain view us as a more attractive place to invest, a responsible global power and a cultural powerhouse.

The importance of tourism to promoting a positive image of Britain abroad has been widely recognised. The House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s influence’s 2014 report, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, concluded that inbound tourists “contribute so much to both the UK’s economy and the UK’s international standing” and proposed “that the Government use GREAT Campaign funding and advertising resources to promote specific cultural activities that are likely to increase inbound tourism.”

The UK was ranked 2nd in Portland’s 2017 Soft Power 30 Survey, which uses visitor numbers, as well as inbound tourist numbers and spend, in its methodology. Respublica’s recent report Britain’s Global Future also acknowledges that Britain’s cultural institutions provide, through their international popularity, a platform from which soft power can be generated.

It is not just the country as a whole that we seek to promote. Through the £40 million Discover England Fund, VisitEngland is improving English tourism products and facilitating collaboration between cities and regions to help them deliver world-class bookable tourism products which join-up across geographies or themes. Two years into the Fund, VisitEngland have already helped deliver projects across England such as the Heritage Cities project which is using technology to bring heritage to life and increasing its appeal with young people in the USA. These projects make it easier for international visitors to discover England’s national treasures and hidden gems outside of London.

Tourism connects global audiences with some of our strongest soft power resources, exposing them to our culture whilst supporting the economy. The British Council’s As Others See Us report found that the main characteristic that make countries attractive to overseas audiences are cultural and historical attractions. These things can only truly be experienced by a visitor to this country. Connecting overseas audiences with our culture online will never match the depth of engagement that can take place when people visit this country and experience the creative buzz of the Edinburgh International Festival, or explore the life of the Bard in Shakespeare’s England, for themselves.

Effectively engaging with international audiences should always be a conversation open to anyone and not a one-way broadcast. The principles behind our #OMGB Home of Amazing Moments campaign are a great of example of this. By communicating the unique experiences which are only possible here in Britain through fresh storytelling, the campaign promotes Britain’s key cities whilst highlighting them as gateways to Britain’s countryside. While word of mouth from family and friends, press, TV and internet are all key sources of information for planning and taking holidays, social media offers unparalleled opportunities to engage directly with potential visitors about Britain at all stages of the holiday planning cycle. Visitors to the UK are encouraged to share these images through their own social media channels using the hashtag ‘#OMGB’.

As the father of public diplomacy Edward R. Murrow noted, “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” International travel can be this bridge.

Tourism doesn’t need a trade deal in order to flourish and can help set the groundwork for future trade agreements. Tourism can also help build those cultural and personal exchanges that moves a purely transactional exchange into a deeper bilateral relationship. At a time when the UK is positioning itself as open for business, promoting Britain as a welcoming destination can improve our international standing and make us a truly Global Britain.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Timothy Jenkins
tim@bfpg.org.uk

Timothy Jenkins is Senior Tourism Affairs Executive at VisitBritain where he advises government on inbound tourism policy. He previously worked in the UK Parliament as a researcher and press officer. Timothy is a graduate in International Relations from the University of Exeter and has an MA in International Affairs and Diplomacy from the University of Buckingham.