The news that Britain is reopening to fully vaccinated travellers from America and the EU from August 2 is the small step back to normality that the travel industry so desperately needed. However, the potential influx of overseas holidaymakers could make it even harder for Britons hoping to bag a last-minute summer break, as the competition intensifies in an already barren holiday landscape.
The US has long been Britain's most valuable country in terms of tourism. Visit Britain reports that in 2019 there were 4.5 million inbound visits from the US to the UK, with Americans accounting for 11 per cent of all travellers. Similarly, data shows that the UK welcomed 24.8 million visits from the European Union in 2019, 61 per cent of all inbound visits. Travellers from the EU spent a staggering £10.7 billion, which accounted for 37 per cent of all inbound visitor spending that year.
Of course these figures are a pipe dream for this year, but they represent quite how significant these travellers are to the UK. If only a tiny fraction of those who visited in 2019 make the trip, the impact on the industry (and availability) will be significant. Already, Virgin Atlantic has reported that flight bookings are up by more than 100 per cent week on week, with bookings from New York to London increasing by nearly 250 per cent, compared to the previous week.
However, trade association UKinbound pours cold water on the idea that Britain will see swathes of overseas visitors this summer, citing the early July decision to initially only scrap quarantine for fully vaccinated Britons returning from amber list countries as terminal for summer trips.
A spokesperson told the Telegraph: “A large majority of bookings for August have now been cancelled, with international visitors opting to holiday in other countries instead.
“International visitors will help revive our cities and are incredibly important to them and tourists attractions, but the summer season is all but lost in terms of international visitors.”
Echoing this sentiment, Rebecca Brooks, managing director of tour operator Abbey Ireland & UK, stresses that there are still “a number of substantial barriers to travel.”
“The requirement for vaccinated travellers to take tests is still out of kilter with our EU counterparts, presenting a disadvantage to the UK as a destination,” she says.
Whether there is a surge in visitor numbers after August 2 remains to be seen, but it’s also crucial to analyse where in the country they might plan on going. While UK holidaymakers rush for the coast, fighting over beach space and eye-wateringly expensive cottages in Cornwall, American travellers have long had a love affair with London. Around 49 per cent of US visitors holiday in the capital according to Tracy Halliwell, the director of tourism at Visit London, who expects to see a “small rise” in overseas holidaymakers this summer.
She says: “We’ve seen lots of pent-up demand from international tourists and are optimistic that there will be an increase on our 2020 visitor numbers.”
Recent research from Visit Britain backs this up, finding that, of those they polled who were interested in travelling to the UK, 76 per cent said they were most likely to choose to visit London.
There’s no doubt the capital has been a loser of the pandemic, with rooms in supersize hotels reliant on international guests gathering dust. A quick Google search reveals a huge number of hotel offers in the capital, with late check-outs, restaurant vouchers, and two for one deals now the norm. If there is an increase in visitors, it could see a return to business as usual, with less enticing offers for UK holidaymakers to take advantage of.
Meanwhile in Windsor, another key destination for American tourists, there’s been an uptick in interest since the announcement. Sam Goss, general manager at the Castle Hotel Windsor, comments: “We have already seen a steady increase in enquiries for both accommodation and also meeting and event space. US and EU travellers are an essential market for Windsor and we look forward to welcoming them back.”
Perennially popular York may be where the demand from domestic and international tourists collides. David Macdonald, general manager at Galtres Lodge, a hotel close to York Minster, says: “York being such a popular destination for travellers will inevitably mean that we see a large uptick in the number of international visitors. The hotel itself is largely full throughout August as much of the city is, so this may temper the numbers that can come to visit.
“We have definitely seen a rise in guests from the UK this year as opposed to international guests, from talking to our visitors a lot have chosen to travel around the UK rather than risk a foreign holiday, something that many of them are doing for the first time in decades.
“We definitely advise people to get their bookings in now,” he adds.
We could look to the EU, where travel restrictions eased in early May to predict booking patterns. Neal Jones, EMEA chief sales and marketing officer at Marriott International, says he’s “encouraged” by trends from mainland Europe in recent weeks, revealing that booking activity has “improved 40pts since restrictions and quarantine requirements have loosened.”
At the same time he says: “We’ve seen an increase in domestic travel within the UK, especially in the beach hotels and golf and country clubs throughout England, with July occupancies reaching 70 per cent in some destinations.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine these two trends soon converging, with competition for rooms at internationally known, big-brand hotels likely to increase.
While UK travellers might be fretting about securing a break, attractions around the country are desperate to welcome back overseas visitors due to their higher value. For many, ‘staycation Britain’ has not been the saviour it was touted to be. This is certainly true in Scotland, an enduringly popular destination with American travellers.
Gordon Morrison, CEO of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, says:
“International visitors are traditionally higher spenders when they visit attractions. They are far more likely to buy the big ticket items from our gift shops or invest in the premium experience packages. Without international visitors, the spend comes down considerably.
“As an example, average spend per visit on retail in attractions in 2020 was £1.04, as compared to £1.96 in 2019, a drop of almost 50 per cent. We need international visitors to come back if we are to recover fully from the impact of the pandemic.”