Sterling’s slide since the EU referendum has lured bargain-hunting tourists to the UK, with overseas visitors hitting a record high last year.
Official figures showed there were 37.3m visits to the UK in 2016, up 3% on the previous year and the highest since records began in 1961.
The UK proved particularly popular with North American visitors, after the valued of the pound dropped to three-decade lows against the dollar after the vote for Brexit in June. Americans visiting Britain paid less for hotels and got more pounds when they exchanged their holiday money.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed a rush in the run-up to Christmas, with visits from North America up 15% in the final three months of 2016, compared with the same period a year earlier.
The poundhas also been down sharply against the euro prompting visits from the rest of the EU to rise 8% in the last quarter on a year earlier.
The tourism minister, Tracey Crouch, sought to emphasise that other factors apart from the weak pound were drawing in visitors.
“As these record-breaking figures show, the UK is one of the world’s must-visit destinations,” she said. “Our country has so much to offer tourists from home and abroad, from thriving cities to stunning scenery and renowned cultural attractions.”
Figures suggest one of the big beneficiaries from the influx of overseas tourists was Yorkshire, which enjoyed a record 476,000 visits in the three months after the referendum. That was a 12% increase on the same period year before. Regional figures for the final three months of 2016 are not yet available.
The national tourism agency, VisitBritain, said there were signs that 2017 could be another strong year for the tourism industry with flight bookings to the UK up 16% for February to April compared with a year earlier.
VisitBritain also pointed to a continued tourism boost from the weak pound. At the end of January the UK was 14% more affordable for visitors from the US and 10% cheaper for those from China than a year earlier, it said.
While visitor numbers are up, the evidence is mixed on how much foreign tourists are spending once in the UK. Economists point out that tourism will only go some way to offsetting a slowdown in domestic spending.
Reports after the referendum suggested retailers enjoyed stronger sales as overseas visitors exploited the weak pound to snap up luxury goods such as watches and jewellery. But the latest ONS figures show spending by visitors failed to grow last year, instead holding at 2015’s record level of £22.2bn.
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