Britain is becoming an ever more attractive place for overseas shoppers and holidaymakers – and a summer influx of visitors is set to take advantage of the weak pound and prepare to spend big, according to new figures.
Data collected by travel consultancy ForwardKeys shows that long-haul flight bookings to the UK from the start of this month to August are up 10% on the same period last year. Visitors from two countries in particular are driving the boom. Bookings from the US are up 19% for June to August year on year, while those from China are up 29%.
“We’ve seen sustained growth for a number of years but this year there has been really strong growth,” said Patricia Yates, director of VisitBritain.
The return of American visitors is particularly welcome – US tourist numbers declined after 9/11 in 2001 but are now finally starting to recover.
“We’ve seen the American market coming back,” Yates said. “They are high spenders so we like them. Even smaller hotels in Wales are saying they are seeing American visitors. Not only do they go to London, they travel around and explore the regions. They are great visitors to have.”
By contrast, the Chinese tend to favour shopping in London. It is reported that 70% of shoppers visiting Burberry’s flagship store in Regent Street are tourists from China. Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge has Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking staff. This year Chinese tourists are expected to spend more than £1bn in the UK compared with around half that four years ago.
“Chinese people are motivated by value,” Yates said. “Britain is looking cheaper. Chinese visitors tend to spend a lot so retailers are keen to see them. They love our history and culture but there has to be good shopping, too.”
The anticipated increase in tourists is a welcome relief for an industry that feared recent terror attacks might diminish the UK’s attractiveness to visitors, particularly as, after attacks in Paris and Nice, France saw a dip in tourist numbers.
“We’re not seeing cancellations,” Yates said. “There’s a confidence that people are continuing to come.”
The fall in the value of the pound is thought to be the chief attraction to overseas visitors. Today a pound buys only €1.13 compared with €1.29 two years ago. Its value against the US dollar has fallen from almost $1.60 two years ago to $1.29 today. And it has also seen its value slide against the Saudi Arabian riyal and China’s renminbi.
“On average the UK is 9% cheaper for visitors this summer than last,” said David Tarsh of ForwardKeys, who suggested many tourists had booked their flights before the recent terror attacks.
A bumper summer for the UK’s hotel and shopkeepers would build on a strong spring. The latest figures available from VisitBritain show that 3.7 million visits were made to the UK in April, up 19% compared to the same month in 2016, and the highest April since records began. Foreign tourists spent a record £2bn in April, 20% up on the same month last year.
Last year was a record for foreign holidaymakers in the UK: 37.6 million visits were made, up 4% on the previous year, with overseas visitors spending £22.5bn, a rise of 2%.
It was the sixth continuous year of growth for inbound tourism. There were 7.8 million more overseas visits to the UK in 2016 than in 2010 – up 26%.
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