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On a gloomy Wednesday morning, the threat of yet another torrential downpour does little to halt the flow of tourists into the British Museum, the country’s most popular attraction. Visitors march in, a mass of fluorescent waterproof jackets huddled under flimsy umbrellas. It is on such fortitude that the British travel industry runs.
Despite the near certainty of inclement weather, tourism is in rude health. Following four years of growing visitor numbers, 16.8m people journeyed to Britain in the first six months of 2015, the best first half of a year on record. Domestic holidays have also become more common. Since the recession, which encouraged people to save money by heading to Torquay rather than Tuscany, holidaymakers have developed a taste for staying in Britain, says Louise Stewart of VisitEngland, the national tourist board. Hotels are making the most of the extra demand: the average price of a room is 3.4% higher than last year, according to STR Global, a research firm.
But things could be better still, claim critics. Although the number of global tourists has grown by an average of 5% a year since 2010, the number of tourists coming to Britain has gone up by just 3% a year. In other words, it has a smaller slice of a larger market. Airports are overstretched, marketing is underfunded and visas are a rip-off (see article). The amount that Australia spends on courting Chinese tourists alone is greater than the entire budget of VisitBritain, the country’s international tourist agency.
Data from ForwardKeys, a travel analytics firm, suggest this is hindering Britain’s attempt to appeal to emerging markets. Long-haul bookings to Britain have stayed flat over the past year, while those to Western Europe have grown by more than 5%. Since Britain is not a member of the Schengen area, which eliminates border controls between 26 European countries, most Chinese tourists visiting Europe decide Britain is not worth the extra hassle.
London overshadows the rest of the offer
Another worry is a growing dependency on London. “London overshadows the rest of the offer,” explains Ms Stewart. Since 2008 the number of tourists visiting the capital has risen by 18%, yet the number of people going to the rest of England has not changed. This dominance may increase as the demography of those visiting Britain shifts. Whereas American baby boomers once flocked to Britain, drawn by its history and culture, new visitors from the Middle East and Asia are more concerned with shopping, says Patricia Yates, head of strategy at VisitBritain. Visitors from Kuwait are both the fastest-growing group of tourists and the most profligate, spending £4,000 ($6,280) on average, 12 times as much as the typical French visitor.
Yet it is possible to overstate such fears. Travellers from America and the EU still make up three-quarters of visitors, points out Liz Hall of PwC, a consultancy, and their numbers are growing, despite a strong pound. London is the most visited city in the world. And the government has made some sensible reforms, including measures to simplify the visa process and encourage regional tourism. That should help. It will need to: tourists may begin to decide that the best way to dodge the downpours is to head elsewhere.
From the print edition: The Economist – Britain