Brexit may have dampened visitor figures to the UK from some markets, but others are taking advantage of cheaper hotels and increased flights.
If any year was going to be difficult to predict for the UK tourism industry, 2019 was it, with Brexit turmoil continuing as WTM London commences.
Any negative perception about the UK’s visitor welcome has been overridden in some – but not all – markets by the weakness of the pound and increased airlift. The picture is mixed, as data from VisitBritain and UKinbound reveals.
VisitBritain’s figures, derived from the government’s International Passenger Survey, include holiday arrivals, business travellers and those visiting friends and relatives (VFR). Data for the January-May period shows visits to the UK are down 3% year-on-year to 14.3 million, with May down 6% to 3.3 million following an 8% fall in April – just after the UK’s original Brexit date. Looking at the rolling 12-month picture, visits to the UK were down 2% at 37.5 million.
Similarly, visitor spend for the first five months of 2019 fell 6% to £7.9 billion, while for the rolling 12-month period, overseas visitors spent £22.4 billion, down 8%. Visits for holiday decreased year-on-year for the first time in 2019 in May, down 16%, making it the weakest May since 2012, however year-to-date figures match 2018 at 5.4 million and the rolling 12 months is up 2% to a record 15.1 million holidaymakers.
Added to this is VFR, up 7% in May to one million, just short of 2017’s record, although this is down 3% in the rolling 12 months to 11.6 million. Business visits fell 4% in the rolling 12-month period.
The data illustrates how the Brexit saga is affecting travel patterns, but also how this is being offset in some cases by the weakness of the pound. Research by accommodation brand Cuckooz estimates the average cost of a London hotel room has fallen 9% since 2016 for visitors from euro countries, with average rates in dollars now $184, down 10%. This has certainly attracted US visitors, but May was the weakest for visits from the EU since 2012, down 16% to 2 million, although the yearly figure is down only 2% to 24.4 million.
However, visits from the US and Canada combined rose 31% in May and are up 7% overall to 1.7 million so far in 2019. This means the rolling 12-month figure is only 40,000 shy of the record 4.9 million total achieved in the year 2000.
More flight options are among the factors attracting US visitors. Airlift from the US increased by 5.5% last year in terms of non-stop flight seats, rising to almost 13 million (see infographic).
The UK was the second most visited European destination for US visitors in 2018, with a 16% market share, behind Paris with 20%, and repeat visitors from the US account for around 60% of the UK total. Visits from areas classed as Rest of World are down 6% in 2019 as a whole, sitting at just fewer than 2 million.
UKinbound CEO Joss Croft says the US and China were now the two leading growth markets: “The UK’s top inbound performing markets have stayed broadly the same, with France holding the number-one spot followed by Germany, the Irish Republic, Spain and the US. However, in 2018 we saw the US take pole position, which can be attributed to the amazing experiences you can have all year round throughout the UK and the fact that our visitor attractions, hotels and shops offer great value.”
He adds: “Visits from some European markets dipped due to factors such as Brexit. Our data [and data from the International Passenger Survey] suggests this trend has continued during 2019.”
Croft says feedback from members highlighted Brexit negotiations as having a negative impact on bookings from Northern Europe, but adds anecdotal evidence since May had shown a turnaround. “Many of our members have reported a prosperous summer with forward bookings from Europe steadily increasing.” Croft highlights Scotland as a particularly bright spot, with figures increasing steadily since 2013.
Whatever the outcome of the UK’s political turmoil, its appeal to visitors is undoubted and there is reason to be optimistic. At the time of last year’s WTM London, only 40% of UKinbound’s members said they were confident about the next 12 months. By January that figure had leapt to 59% and in July, despite months of Brexit uncertainty, still 57% said they were confident. The UK has a lot going for it and understandably, its tourism industry has great faith in its product.
*LHR, LGW, STN and LCY.
Thomas Cook Airlines ceased operation on 23 September 2019.
Primera Air ceased operation on 1 October 2018.
Key attractions that opened this year include the UK’s first Hard Rock Hotel near London’s Marble Arch and the War of the Worlds Immersive Experience, also in the capital. Further afield, Beamish open-air museum in County Durham opened the first exhibit in its 1950s town recreation in June. The £20 million, four-year project will include moving an entire cinema brick by brick from Sunderland.
UK tourism will see two key events boosting visitor numbers in 2020, with the early May bank holiday moving from a Monday to Friday 8 May to mark the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day, plus the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower in September.
Wales will come under the spotlight when it celebrates its Year of Outdoors, encouraging visitors to explore its natural landscapes. Wales will also host the first Nitro World Games to be held outside the US. The two-day festival of extreme sports and stunts in Cardiff, featuring motocross, BMX, skateboarding and scooter tricks, takes place in May.
UKinbound names experiential tourism, such as food tours led by locals, as a growth sector. Film tourism, such as visiting Highclere Castle, location of hit TV series Downton Abbey, is another, with more than a third of visitors saying they want to go to such destinations.