Visitor numbers at the UK’s most popular attractions, including the British Museum and Tate Modern, have failed to rebound since the onset of the pandemic, as the cost of living crisis and a lack of Chinese travellers hobbled demand.
There were 123.4mn visits recorded across Britain’s 349 best-known tourist sites last year, an improvement on 2021 but still well below the 161.2mn visits across the sites in 2019, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, an industry body, on Friday.
Bernard Donoghue, ALVA chief executive, said London’s landmarks had recovered particularly slowly because they were “highly dependent on foreign visitors” and as a result were “suffering from the tourism equivalent of long Covid”.
In 2022, 46.6mn visits were recorded to the capital’s biggest attractions, down 33 per cent on levels recorded before the pandemic struck.
Visits to the British Museum, which previously ranked as the UK’s most popular attraction, were 35 per cent lower, while trips to the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum were more than 40 per cent down compared with 2019.
Windsor Great Park ranked as the most popular visitor attraction with 5.6mn visits in 2022, boosted by crowds gathering to watch the state hearse carrying Queen Elizabeth II to her final resting place at the King George VI Memorial Chapel in September.
Donoghue said that with the end of Beijing’s Zero-Covid policy last December, marking the loosening of Chinese travel restrictions, the outlook for international visitors was improving “week-by-week”.
“Chinese visitors are not just important in terms of sheer numbers, but they tend to spend more as well,” said Donoghue.
According to the tourist board VisitBritain, annual spending from international visitors to the UK is set to reach nearly £29.5bn this year, surpassing the previous record of £28.4bn set in 2019, but visitor numbers will not rebound in full until 2025.
Donoghue added that the cost of living crisis meant Britons were making “tactical decisions” about leisure spending, which was cutting into footfall at many sites.
Visits to free attractions recovered to 14 per cent below 2019 levels, and bounced back faster than paid-for sites, whose numbers were 28 per cent down.
Dan Wolfe, commercial director of Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that runs six UK palaces, including the Tower of London, said recovery in tourist numbers had been “led by the Americans returning en masse”.
Alongside sluggish demand from visitors from China and south-east Asia, Wolfe said the Tower of London had seen a drop-off in visitors from European countries.
“The question mark is whether Covid to an extent has hidden the effects of Brexit,” said Wolfe, pointing to how more bureaucratic hurdles for school tours visiting Britain had hurt demand.
Tim Reeve, V&A deputy director, said that, while the museum had benefited from record-high domestic visitor numbers, a drop-off in international visitors had held back demand.
“We recognise that it may be some time before international tourism reaches pre-pandemic levels,” said Reeve.