The UK general election in December shouldn’t just be about Brexit. It should be about how we cushion the effects of Brexit, if and when we leave - and even if we don’t. Most sane people on both sides accept that our economy is taking a knock, that it could get worse if we leave and that the solutions are going to have to be creative.
Even die-hard Brexiteers agree that there will be an economic price to pay; the difference in opinion is whether that price will be short or long-term, and whether it will be ultimately worth it.
This election, whatever the result, won’t settle this. Quantifying the real cost of Brexit is politically impossible. There is just too much of an incentive for both sides to exaggerate to their own advantage.
The most obvious and indisputable economic change so far is that the pound has weakened, recently falling to below $1.20, its lowest level in three years. This means that things produced or made in the UK are effectively cheaper for foreign buyers.
Often, we are told that this is great news for British exporters at the same time as we are hearing that UK manufacturers will slow down or even shut down because of Brexit pressure on supplies and export tariffs. Perhaps the way to square this circle is to think differently about what an exporter actually is. As well as cars, luxury goods and services, what Britain is best at exporting is itself: selling “Brand Britain” to tourists.
This may seem ironic given that much of the talk surrounding Brexit has been about Britain becoming less diverse, more closed off to the world, and even inhospitable to foreigners. But could the only way to protect our economic strength - and even our livelihoods - after Brexit be to open ourselves up to even more tourists? I think so. Our armed forces, economy and even our society may be struggling with various challenges, but the UK is still a tourism superpower - even though we rarely celebrate the fact.
Last week, for example, Lonely Planet crowned England the world’s best tourist destination in 2020, after the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The land-locked country, with a population the size of Liverpool, is both every avid explorer’s dream and notoriously expensive and exclusive, which means that for the vast majority of travellers, England is the travel guide's top choice.
Recognition like this is a huge opportunity. As Brexit continues to define Britain's image, tourism can give it the soft power and PR edge that the UK’s exit from the EU is taking from it. But the government seems oblivious to it. Despite tourism contributing 10% of the UK's economy, the country has no dedicated tourism minister and the issue is all but ignored at cabinet level. While Visit Britain having been much more robust over the past few years, the country is often promoted through inertia, rather than top-down efforts.
Contrast this with other countries (like Russia and Turkey, for example) that see tourism as a key plank of both their economic and diplomatic policies. They know that foreign visitors bring in cash, but take home something more important than souvenirs. They go home with an improved image of the country they have visited, and its people and values.
Previously closed off countries like Russia - and most notably Saudi Arabia - have recently introduced electronic travel authorisations that provide essentially visa-free travel for tourists from countries that provide high spenders with low risk of overstaying. At a time when Britain stands accused by some of becoming dysfunctional or even authoritarian, is it time we learnt from our counterparts in Moscow, Riyadh and elsewhere?
It may sound counter-intuitive that the only way for Britain to survive and thrive through Brexit is to welcome more foreign visitors, but it’s true - our untapped tourism potential leaves us with little choice.
Nabeel Shariff is founder of Muslim ethical travel site Rihaala.com
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