Tourism is a cornerstone of the British economy. As one of the most popular destinations in the world, with its heritage, culture and landscape drawing millions of visitors every year, Britain is a global brand. Inbound tourism is the UK’s third largest service export, worth 9% of GDP, and is the industry on which 3.2 million jobs and more than 200,000 SMEs depend. But the sector was decimated by the pandemic and now has a long haul back to its previous success, let alone to surpass it. We wanted to examine the barriers to it doing so and identify the support it needs.
We have observed that the global inbound tourism industry is an increasingly competitive one: Britain cannot afford simply to be an attractive place to visit, it must also facilitate people coming here. Improving transport infrastructure, marketing attractions outside of London and amplifying Britain’s outstanding cultural assets will all go some way to increasing the numbers of visitors. However, we found that our status as a soft power superpower is increasingly under threat from other countries. If we rely on reputation alone, visitors will go elsewhere.
We also saw that our inbound tourist sector is too reliant on London. Visitors don’t know enough about what else there is to see and, even if they do, don’t know how to get there. Travelling beyond the capital does not have to be a zero-sum game: London may be the magnet, but it can also be a gateway through which visitors see far more. We want to see a renewed focus on one of the key barriers, namely transport.
Perhaps our most shocking finding of all is the fact that Government policies have not made the industry’s job easier, they have made them harder. The Government’s original decision to remove tax-free shopping was both short-sighted and incredibly damaging given how much some of our richest visitors spend in the UK. Its short-lived revival–announced in September’s fiscal event but then removed in October–only serves to highlight the inadequacy of the Treasury’s original analysis of its impact. We did not see any evidence that the Treasury considered the effect that losing these visitors would have on the wider tourism economy. Just as damaging has been the ban on children and young people using identity cards to visit the UK. Many of our coastal resorts rely on income from school visits and English language courses, but many of those who attend do not have passports. Yet again, we have seen the Government make a decision in which no apparent thought has been given to the inbound tourism industry.
We found a worrying lack of money for marketing. Regardless of how the pot is divided up, Britain’s international marketing spend is significantly lower than elsewhere. Just as shocking is the fact that our British tourist authority faces incredible hurdles in even spending what it has been given. We want to see a more light-touch relationship between Government and VisitBritain.
Overall, we believe that the Government fails to recognise the value of the inbound tourism industry. If it did, it would not have reduced its marketing spend and made it harder for people to visit and less likely to spend. The industry has spoken loud and clear. We hope that the Government listens.