Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the royal family: London is blessed with renowned attractions wrapped in tradition and heritage most cities can only dream of. But with Brexit looming, the UK tourism industry, which supports more than one tenth of the countrys jobs, has hit turbulence.
Almost every industry representative I spoke with used the same word to describe 2018 – “mixed”.
Overseas visitors to the UK were down in the first nine months of 2018 but the industry has adapted, pitching harder for business in lucrative long-haul markets and wooing millennials as enthusiasm for Old Blighty among its European neighbours is waning.
Attracting tourists from Europe after the UK has turned its back on the continent – at least politically – is proving challenging.
Europe accounts for two in every three overseas visitors to the UK and almost a third of Europeans view Britain more negatively since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, according to research by Visit Britain, which promotes Britain overseas.
There has been a “real hardening” of attitudes in Germany and the Netherlands in particular, says Patricia Yates, strategy and communications director at Visit Britain. Forward bookings from the continent are down six per cent for the three-month period from March to May.
The industry also frets about other difficulties Brexit may yet unleash. “We have to make sure we avoid these hard border checks and lines,” says Rochelle Turner, research director at the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), an industry body. Images of border queues could impact on Britains reputation as a welcoming destination.
Pivoting away from Europe
Faced with headwinds in Europe, the UK tourism sector has pivoted towards long-haul markets, such as the US and China.
London is seeing a “sustained and significant increase in [its] attractiveness to the big markets for tomorrow, which are inherently bigger markets”, explains Allen Simpson, strategy director at London & Partners, which promotes London in conjunction with the mayor, Sadiq Khan.
The number of Chinese visitors grew by a fifth last year. Visit Britain is targeting £1bn in spending by Chinese visitors in 2019, taking the country into the UKs top 10 tourism markets. The cricket world cup, hosted by England and Wales this summer, is expected to draw big numbers from India, another burgeoning market.
Business with US visitors has also been swift, with flight bookings up 18 per cent this year. Americans spent a record £3.6bn in the UK in 2018.
“Its our most valuable market,” says Yates. It helps, she says, that the UK has become seven per cent more affordable for US visitors over the past year.
Even against the testing backdrop of Brexit, all goodwill is not lost between the UK and its nearest neighbours.
Visit London has launched a joint London-Paris campaign, relying heavily on Instagram and other social media channels to attract US millennials to visit both cities in a single trip.
“If youre bringing somebody over for two weeks, it makes sense to spend a week here and a week there,” says Simpson. “Both centres are seeing an increase in attraction.”
One characteristic of millennial visitors is that they disperse beyond the usual zone one tourist hotspots. “The average younger visitor will tend to want to go and live like a local,” says Simpson. Young tourists party in Peckham and flock to the psychedelic array of neon signs at Gods Own Junkyard in Walthamstow.
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