Four million reasons to celebrate

Rob Russell, joint managing director at AC Group, says the UK should invest in tourism to make the most of sterling’s slide.

July 2017 saw the UK welcome more than four million visitors from abroad – up 6% year-on-year. They spent £2.8 billion, the best month’s expenditure since the Office for National Statistics (ONS) started keeping track.

A plethora of hotels catering to varied accommodation needs; world-leading entertainment options; heritage and cultural attractions; an innovative dining scene – the reasons to visit the UK are well documented and celebrated.

But why this rise now? What lies behind this fabulous result? Like the ONS, the AC Group saw visitors from North America dominate arrivals in July.

The ONS reported a 9% increase year-on-year, we noted a 60% rise. Most of our guests stayed longer than they usually would, and spent more during their trips.

Increasingly savvy

From the front-line, our reps tell us these decisions were driven predominantly by one factor: the strength (or lack thereof!) of the pound.

Through the work of VisitBritain and on-the-ground efforts by sales managers affiliated to destination management companies and operators, Britain is never far from the thoughts of travel planners, but these results strongly suggest visitors around the world are searching for value for money.

While the wallets of Brits heading abroad may be feeling the pinch, the flipside of our currency’s slide is that overseas holidaymakers to Britain are making the most of it.

From May to July 2017, there were 11 million visits to the UK, 4% up year-on-year. The ONS said that during this time, ‘holiday visits’ – tourists – increased 11% to almost five million.

Summer is usually our busiest time, so double-digit growth in this segment reveals that travellers are increasingly savvy about where and when they spend their money. Our own reports also show strong growth in last-minute and short-lead bookings.

Scottish resurgence

In the past, London may have been a draw simply because it is London; now, the capital is seen as more affordable than ever, encouraging tourists to upgrade their hotel, splurge on private transfers or book the stalls instead of the upper circle at a West End show.

The weak pound is also encouraging people to explore beyond London; we’ve seen a 50% increase in regional tours booked over summer, with Brighton, the south west and Scotland – the hottest ticket for 2017-18 – among the most popular.

Scotland is enjoying a resurgence among international visitors, and is tipped to be even more popular next year following its recent coronation as the most beautiful country in the world in a survey by Rough Guides.

Scottish businesses have invested heavily in new product and experiences in recent years, providing visitors with more accommodation choices than ever before.

Unique occasions – moments that transport a tourist from feeling like an observer to forming a connection with their destination – are highly sought after; it’s no longer enough to take a visitor fishing for salmon. Bookings flow towards places that cook your catch, or smoke it and ship it home for you.

While the Brexit negotiations throw up more questions than answers for businesses and individuals, the impact on the pound amid the uncertainty is providing us with the opportunity to welcome more and more visitors to Britain.

Spread the message

Our challenge as operators is to ensure these visitors continue to feel welcome and are encouraged to return home harbouring a genuine desire to return and promote us as a destination to their friends and families.

Whether first-timers or repeat visitors, the record four million overseas visitors who ventured to our shores in July were hoping for the trip of a lifetime.

With Britain thriving on its current affordability, it is up to us as an industry to ensure visitors understand there is always more to see and do – we may be a small country in size but are a giant in itinerary options – and spread the message that Britain is not only open for business, but for pleasure.

If we do that, we will hopefully have five million reasons to celebrate in the near future.