Million visitors go missing from Britain

Hard times for tourism industry as foreigners stay away, new figures show
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The Independent Online

Fewer American tourists are asking the way to Buckingham Palace, tourism figures showed yesterday.

Almost a million fewer Americans, Russians and other foreigners visited the UK in the first three months of this year, with travel falling from every region, the International Passenger Survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed. It found that 6.28 million people visited the UK in the first three months of 2009, compared with 7.19 million in the same period of 2008, a fall of 13 per cent.

Visits from North America were down sharply, by 21 per cent, or 170,000 travellers, as the US economy plunged headfirst into the downturn.

Americans and Canadians have been among the biggest tourist spenders to the UK and their loss may place a strain on some attractions. English Heritage described the numbers of Americans visiting Stonehenge this year as "challenging".

Russians, known for their high spending on luxury goods, have also been staying home or visiting elsewhere. Visits from non-EU European states, including Russia, Norway and Switzerland, fell by 29 per cent. Over the past two years, the number of Russians entering the UK has been falling and their annual spending has collapsed from £271m to £179m.

The ONS – which did not distinguish whether trips were for leisure, business or employment – also revealed a slump in visits from eastern Europe.

Visitors from the 12 accession countries which have joined the EU since 2004, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, fell 25 per cent, perhaps a reflection of the number of Poles that have gone home as the British economy has weakened, further signalling the end of the "Polish Plumber".

Visits from Germany, France and other countries in the original "EU 15", which were hit less hard by the downturn, fell 4 per cent. Visits from South America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Australasia were down 11 per cent. Department stores and luxury goods boutiques have been reporting strong business from Continental shoppers who have been taking advantage of the collapse of the pound against the euro.

Perhaps because of that, spending stayed the same, at £3.1bn, despite the fall in visitors. Visit Britain said that until last year, new business from China, India and Indonesia had offset falls in traditional markets but that was no longer the case as the downturn spread across the world.

Leading attractions reported buoyant attendance this year, suggesting that increased visits from Britons had offset the foreign decline. Visits to the British Museum, the UK's top attraction, rose from 456,000 last April to 508,000 last month. Merlin Entertainments, which owns Madam Tussauds and the London Eye, said attendance was "holding up well."

The luxury goods organisation the Walpole Group credited the strong euro for raising sales at its members, which include Asprey, Gieves & Hawkes and Fortnum & Mason.

Britons holiday more in the UK than foreigners, spending £20bn on 120 million trips, compared with £16bn by 32 million foreign visitors. One in five Britons may stay home this year, says Elliott Frisby, from Visit Britain: "If that five million does holiday at home, and with the Met Office predicting a barbecue summer, it could be a very good year for British tourism."