Visitor numbers to the UK fell 5.3 per cent in 2018, according to the UNWTO. Not a disaster, you might think. But then consider the fact that every single other major travel destination in the world witnessed an increase in international arrivals, and the statistic starts to look slightly troubling.
Even America, which was said to have suffered from a so-called “Trump slump”, saw a modest increase in visitors. And while we may rejoice that fewer people are clogging up the streets of London, Edinburgh and Oxford, the drop in numbers meant a 2.3 per cent fall in spending, representing a loss of more than £560 million to the economy.
In a year when the UK celebrated a Royal wedding (historically, a sure-fire way of attracting tourists), the blip is even more unexpected. Indeed, earlier in the year, VisitBritain had predicted that 2018 would be another bumper year for the UK. The national tourist board anticipated that visitors would spend £27 billion and that numbers would reach a record-breaking 41.7 million (up from 39.2m in 2017), helped by the falling value of the pound.
A 4.4 per cent increase in numbers was predicted, rather than the first slowdown in almost a decade. Figures have fallen below those of 2017, a year in which there were concerns that our tourism industry would be affected by the London and Manchester terror attacks.
So what is behind the slump? Is it as black and white as the Brexit effect, or are there more complex factors?
Research conducted by VisitBritain shows that interest from European travellers, which accounts for more than two thirds of all overseas visitors, has indeed fallen over time – from 76 per cent in August 2016 to 73 per cent in spring 2018 and finally to 69 per cent in autumn 2018.
But if the result of the referendum in June 2016 really had created an instant anti-Britain sentiment on the Continent, it would be expected that visitor numbers would drop almost immediately. In fact, the reverse happened.
In the months following the referendum result, the pound plummeted, attracting visitors who suddenly found a trip to Blighty far more affordable. Sterling has since somewhat steadied, with a few fluctuations in between.
The prolonged period of instability in the pound could be enough to put off travellers who can opt for other destinations in Europe without the hassle of converting their money. Or, as our France expert, Anthony Peregrine, put it: “The rise in the pound, though barely perceptible to the naked eye, might have been enough to put off some continental cheapskates”.
But the positive PR the Royal wedding created for the UK on a global scale suggests that it cannot be the fluctuation in currency alone causing the problems. But nor can it be that our neighbours immediately retaliated to the implications of Brexit. Instead, the longevity of inaction has been suggested as the cause by Peregrine, who told Telegraph Travel:
“It is quite wrong to suggest that French people – or, perhaps, any other foreigners – spend much time thinking about Brexit. Brexit is our problem.They have their own countries, and their own problems to think about. But, while initially, French people I know treated it merely as another example of British idiosyncrasy – like black cabs, Prince Philip and eating cheese before pud, time has groaned on and the swell of Brexiteer opinion has my French friends asking: ‘What’s all this about? Why don’t you like us any more?’
“They’re offended at what they see as our impoliteness,” he continues. “Our bad manners, really. And this builds up resentment in even the most charming of people. As holiday destinations are not life-and-death decisions, this resentment might just be enough to tip the balance against Blighty. I’d wager that it is.”
Lee Marshall, our Italy expert, echoed Peregrine’s sentiment. “For the view from Italy, yes, I think there has been a small dip in people’s enthusiasm for the UK alongside an ongoing curiosity about how messy Brexit has become. (We once had a reputation for getting things done efficiently… that’s starting to go by the board). Italian friends who were shocked by the vote are now surprised that we’re still hanging around.”
Paul Sullivan, our Germany expert, too, reported similar sentiments. “From the conversations I’ve had with friends and internationals here in Berlin, Brexit has divided people abroad as much as at home,” he said. “Many see it as a passing political fiasco that wouldn’t stop them liking or visiting Britain, especially Scotland, but others have definitely said they will not be visiting anytime in the near future. The reasons for the latter are varied, but range from bad personal experiences in Britain following the referendum to uncertainty about visas and other technical aspects of travel.”
Marshall agrees that the problem is not a simple one: “I’m sure there are other factors involved: the UK (London in particular) is regarded as expensive, and the fluctuating exchange rate doesn’t seem to have altered that perception.”
Speaking to Telegraph Travel, Patricia Yates from VisitBritain said: “Tourism is one of the UK’s most valuable export industries and needs no trade deals to attract overseas investment. It is also a fiercely competitive global industry and people have a lot of choice.”
The inference being that there is no logical reason for Europeans to be shunning Britain. And while a sense of increasing resentment may come into play, the pound and perceived expense of the UK cannot be ignored as a stumbling block for visitors. Indeed, when asked about what may have caused the decrease in numbers, the tourist board said: “There continues to be widespread agreement that Britain is an expensive destination.”
“We have seen a slowdown from our European markets and it is crucial that we work to retain as well as grow this region, emphasising our welcome and good value,” said Yates, who referred to forward bookings from Europe as “difficult”.
She added: “We are working on a specific campaign in Europe ‘Friends of Europe’ to encourage Europeans to visit Britain this year and experience our warm welcome and great value.”
Yates’ view of a slowdown in European markets is supported by research by the UN’s travel arm. According to a report by UNWTO: “The global economic slowdown, the uncertainty related to the Brexit, as well as geopolitical and trade tensions may prompt a wait and see attitude among investors and travellers.”
The good news? Long-haul markets are, according to VisitBritain, promising rapid growth. “It is encouraging to see strong forward bookings from the US, our most valuable inbound visitor market,” said Yates. “These are up 31 per cent for the first six months of 2019 and also up 31 per cent from China, the world’s most valuable outbound market.”
Join the debate. What to you think is responsible for the dip in the number of visitors to Britain?