In conversation with VisitBritain four years on from the UK’s tourism shutdown

Mon 25 Mar 2024
Posted by: Danielle Keen

To mark four years since the first UK Covid-19 lockdown (23 March), the IOE&IT Daily Update looked into one of the industry’s most affected – tourism. After worldwide travel restrictions forced a total shutdown, how is tourism’s recovery progressing and what strategies are in place to boost the sector?

We spoke to VisitBritain's CEO, Patricia Yates, to find out.

Major service export

Yates highlights that despite Covid knockbacks, tourism has remained one of the UK’s most valuable services exports, bringing money from visitors and investors:

“Our cultural attractions, our destinations and our businesses welcome tens of millions of international visitors every year who spend billions of pounds across Britain, supporting jobs and local economies.

“Tourism is one of the UK’s largest service exports and a major part of British trade. It drives inward investment. Those who have visited Britain are 16 per cent more likely to invest in our products and businesses.”

However, beyond balance sheets, she also points out the soft power that tourism creates to empower a country:

“It connects people all around the world. It ties countries closer together, building bridges between cultures and promoting mutual understanding.”

Recovery on-track

In light of the value tourism brings, Yates is pleased to outline VisitBritain’s forecasts for 2024, with an increase in inbound visits predicted, compared to 2023. Expectations are that pre-Covid levels will be reached by early 2025.

The amount of money that tourists will be pumping into the UK economy with internal forecasts predicting a total of £34.1bn. Despite rampant inflation in past years, the figure brings tourist spending almost in line with pre-Covid figures, at 96% of UK levels.

Visits to the UK are also approaching parity with 2019, 39.5m visits are forecast this year, just 3% shy of UK levels.

She says that there’s been interesting variation among recovery levels from different international markets:

“The US continues to lead tourism’s recovery. We expect the US market to be worth £6.3bn in 2024 with American visitors contributing almost £1 in every £5 of all inbound spending in the UK.

“China has continued to build back and is forecast to recover to a value of £1.5bn in 2024, becoming the UK’s fourth most valuable market.”

Comparatively, she says the pace of recovery from European markets slowed throughout 2023, with spending, in real terms, remaining just below 2019 levels.

Trade and travel

The International Trade Centre (ITC) and UN’s tourism office (UNTWO) wrote that “few countries tackle tourism as an export sector; few have tourism export strategies that build on existing masterplans aimed at strengthening tourism value chains”. This, their report claims, is integral to maximising revenues from tourism.

Not the UK. VisitBritain works to strengthen trade links between the UK and international markets, considering how to promote a range of destinations across those markets. Yates says that applying a trade lens to the industry is instrumental to encouraging visitors to explore the full breadth of the UK and to do so year-round.

As such, the organisation provides events to designed to support prospective international buyers.

VisitBritain hosts events to educate prospective buyers on the UK, such as the recent ‘Showcase Britain’ event, in which over 120 international buyers from 18 markets travelled across Britain, taking part in educational visits to build knowledge of the country and broaden travel itineraries.

Yates says that VisitBritain also hosts a series of international trade missions for British suppliers and destinations to get their tourism products and services in front of top travel buyers, doing business and driving bookings.

“In 2023, our sales missions connected more than 200 British businesses with international buyers.

“Our international teams host regular in market webinars and events to boost knowledge of Britain as a visitor destination and to educate trade partners on the latest destination and product updates, from trade roadshows currently underway across India, to hosted sales missions in the Nordics to roadshows across Brazil and Australia.”

Business tourism

While it’s easy to associate tourism with leisure and picture overseas visitors ticking off the key London landmarks, or trekking to the country’s more historic cities, business tourism plays and increasing important part in the sector.

Yates says they’re “great visitors to have, spending more and coming in the quieter months”.

According to the organisation’s stats, the average business visitor spent £968 per trip in 2022, compared to the all-visitor average of £848.

She says that the off-season visits are especially valuable:

“They are significantly more likely to visit during January to March, supporting the visitor economy during the winter and shoulder seasons. Business visitors are also more likely to visit destinations outside London.”

She adds that business visits have been a slower category to recover post-pandemic, although the most recent statistics show the pace of recovery improving, noting that between January to September 2023 there were 4.7m business visits to the UK, an increase of 32% on the same period in 2022.

She also says those visitors spent £3.8bn, an increase of 14% on 2022 and representing 16% of all inbound visitor spending in the first nine months of last year. Looking back to 2022, business visits contributed 19%, £5 billion, of all inbound visitor spending in the UK that year.

“The top three business visitor source markets to the UK, for both the number of visits and spending are, in order of value: the US, Germany and France,” she says.

To boost UK tourism, VisitBritain has a dedicated business strategy, with its business events team promoting Britain internationally as the top destination for business events. Its Business Events Growth Programme supported events worth approximately £50m to the British economy between 2023 and 2024.

Novel – and cinematic – approaches

In addition to business tourism, Yates says that ‘screen tourism’ or ‘set-jetting’ will be the focus of its global marketing campaigns this year:

“Our research shows that films and TV are powerful motivators for travel and screen tourism is an increasingly valuable part of our global tourism offer.

“Film and TV show releases provide us with timely opportunities to promote our world-renowned history and heritage, stunning countryside and associated experiences to a global audience, inspiring visitors to come and see the filming locations and destinations for themselves.”

VisitBritain is working with the British Film Council to promote screen tourism and ‘Starring GREAT Britain’, a multi-million-pound international campaign to boost UK visitor numbers through screen tourism, later this year.

Yates says the marketing campaign will launch across the major inbound visitor markets that are showing strong growth: the US, Australia, Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as the UK’s major European markets.

She concludes:

“By shining the spotlight on film and TV inspired experiences you can only have in Britain, the campaign will encourage visitors to come and discover more of our amazing destinations, putting themselves in the picture.”

More than meets the eye

Yates finishes by highlighting the organisation’s ongoing umbrella campaign: ‘See Things Differently,’ which promotes UK events and attractions tourists may otherwise overlook.

“Britain has so much to offer visitors”, she says, “from contemporary culture in our vibrant cities, stunning coastlines and seaside destinations, from heritage to adventure tourism.

“Not to mention our outstanding B&Bs and self-catering accommodation, which are consistently rated as some of the best in the world. There really is something for everyone across all budgets.”

The campaign draws attention to the UK’s longstanding history of festivals, from music to wellness, offers the opportunity to explore the country through a culinary lens by showcasing top restaurants and food events, as well as the range of sporting events hosted year-round.