The tourists are returning in their droves

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The Independent Online

Tourists are returning to the UK, including high-spending visitors from North America, figures showed yesterday.

The first half of 2004 saw one of the strongest performances on record. The number of overseas residents visiting the UK in the three months to the end of June grew 16 per cent to 6.7 million, compared with the period last year.

The number of visits from Western Europe were 7 per cent higher, those coming from North America were up 6 per cent, while visits from other parts of the world increased 11 per cent.

The second quarter figures, from the International Passenger Survey, came after 6.8 million tourists visited the UK in the first quarter. Tourism had been damaged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then by the Iraq war.

Rod Taylor, an expert on the leisure industry at Barclays Bank, said: "The pick-up has been at a time when the pound has been strong, so it would appear there is a genuine appetite among overseas tourists to visit the UK."

He said that during the past few "difficult" years, it was European business that helped sustain the British tourism industry. He said, however, that this country's share of the European tourist market "is still fairly low" and the challenge for the industry was to increase this share. In the longer term, he said, Eastern Europe may provide another source of business.

"Already some of London's large three-star hotels are beginning to see coach parties from Eastern European countries. Of course, £40-a-night bed and breakfast is a fairly low-revenue business, so hoteliers will be needing to fill a lot of hotel rooms.

"At the other end of the spectrum, there is still a very active market in London for top-quality hotels, which are continuing to be built to satisfy the expectations of American and high-net-worth European visitors," Mr Taylor said.

Over the second quarter, UK residents' visits abroad increased over last year by 1 per cent to 15.4 million.

While overseas visitors to the UK spent £3.1bn in the period, up 3 per cent, the expenditure of Britons abroad was unchanged at £7.3bn.