32 million people can't be wrong: ONS numbers show overseas visitor boom

From the British Museum and Big Ben to Stonehenge and Scotland’s whisky distilleries, overseas visitors flocked to Britain in unprecedented numbers last year, according to new figures.

Thanks to a long, hot summer, favourable exchange rates and a post-Olympic “bounce”, the tourism industry enjoyed a record-breaking 32 million visits to Britain in 2013, the highest number since records began and a 5.6 per cent rise on a “disappointing performance” in 2012.

The latest figures, published by the Office of National Statistics, also confirmed what many tourism officials and hotel owners already suspected – booming numbers translated into cold, hard cash with tourism earnings soaring 12.7 per cent to an unprecedented £21 billion.

“We are delighted with these final results for the key post-Olympic year. Every single nation across Britain has seen an uplift in visitor numbers,” said Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of Visit Britain. “And, even more importantly, there have been substantial increases in spending for one of Britain’s largest export industries.”

The figures also show that London overtook Paris as the world’s most popular tourism destination with 16.8 million visits, thanks to a “post-Olympic boom” and a surge in the popularity of the British Royal Family coinciding with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the birth of Prince George.

A run of “blockbuster” exhibitions in the capital, including Constable at the V&A, Ming at the British Museum and Rembrandt at the National Gallery, also contributed to the boom, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA).

London Mayor Boris Johnson hailed as a “tribute to the outstanding mix of culture, art, music and sport to be found” in the capital. However an aide for Anne Hidalgo, the new Socialist mayor of the French capital, told the Evening Standard: “The new British figures will be analysed, but they sound fanciful. Visitor numbers to Paris are impressive and unrivalled.”

Throughout the rest of Britain visitor number in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales grew by as much as 10 per cent, reversing falls, while spending growth outpace the capital.

Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were the most popular UK towns outside of the capital, but the tourist boom has been felt on even the farthest-flung extremities of the UK. On Islay in the Inner Hebrides Simon Coughlin, chief executive of Bruichladdich, a small single malt whisky distillery, said “there’s no question” the tourist boom had spread out to the furthest reaches of the British Isles.

He said: “Our distillery tours and Islay generally are busier than ever. Scottish whisky is known the world over and people want to see where it’s made, fall in love with the country and come back time and time again.”

While at Stonehenge English Heritage reported an 18.9 per cent rise is visitors last year. A spokesman said: “We had a fantastic year, with more than half of all visitors to Stonehenge coming from abroad… we saw increasing visitor numbers at Hadrian’s Wall and Tintagel Castle, indicating that discovering England’s rich history is a key part of many people’s itinerary.”

Bernard Donoghue, director of ALVA, said that “outdoor attractions, such as stately homes, gardens and zoos beyond the capital did much better than previous years”. He put this down to a “long, hot summer” and a “favourable” exchange rate against the euro which made Britain “an affordable destination” for French and German visitors.

He added: “The rest of the country outside of the capital is set to get an even bigger slice of the tourism cake in future. On their first visit to the UK tourists pretty much exclusively head to London, but our research shows that on their second and third visits, they are actually more likely to visit the rest of the country, to explore its heritage history and countryside.”

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