From Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, to Loch Ness and the birthplace of Shakespeare, Britain offers countless attractions. But for tourists from across Europe, these world-famous sights pale compared with the delights of the plummeting pound.
"I would usually go on holiday to Turkey or Morocco for the sun, but the pound is so weak at the moment that we thought we'd come over to London for the weekend," said Aline Cirrode, an advertising executive from Paris. She is not the only visitor keen to take advantage of the plunging value of sterling – statistics reveal that thousands of our continental neighbours are flooding to the UK in the hope of snapping up a bargain break.
Eurostar, Sea France and Hotels.com are all reporting dramatic increases in the number of holidaymakers heading to the UK from the eurozone, a trend that looks likely to continue throughout 2009. It should provide a welcome boost to the ailing British economy.
This surge in continental visitors began in November and grew dramatically in December, when European tourists headed to the UK for cheap Christmas shopping. Despite a Europe-wide downturn, sales of Eurostar tickets to Britain were 15 per cent higher in December 2008 than in December 2007.
"This is definitely a trend that is continuing," said a spokeswoman for Eurostar. "Belgian and French people are finding things almost 30 per cent cheaper in Britain, and that is going to make them choose the UK over more expensive destinations this year."
Britain's ports are also seeing increased traffic, with SeaFrance reporting a rise in day-trippers heading to the UK that has extended well beyond the festive period into January. "One of the reasons for this is a number of French people coming to Canterbury and other UK locations to take advantage of the British sales and advantageous prices in fuel and other goods," a spokeswoman for SeaFrance said.
The falling pound is not the only thing luring continental travellers to our frosty shores – worried hoteliers have been drastically cutting rates in order to snare customers, with dramatic results. The price that travellers from the eurozone pay for hotel rooms in Britain is now significantly lower than it was in 2007. The website Hotels.com found that the average hotel room in the UK is now 13 per cent cheaper for travellers from euro countries – with prices in Scottish cities dropping the most.
The room price cuts seem to be having the desired effect – in December, searches by eurozone customers for stays in Britain were up 49 per cent when compared with December 2007, according to Hotels.com. The French, who traditionally head south for their holidays, are leading the invasion. French searches for stays in London are up by 77 per cent in December compared with the previous year. UKinbound, which represent's Britain's inbound tourism industry – including accommodation, tourism, and visitor attractions – said that its members saw a significant rise in visitors from Europe in November, and that initial figures looked "promising" for December.
"This figure was bumped up particularly by our members based in London, including some of the capital's visitor attractions, who have benefited from European shoppers taking advantage of the weak pound," said Mary Rance, the organisation's chief executive.
If this trend continues, it will be good news for Britain's tourist industry, which has been bracing for the worst as the recession deepens. VisitBritain, the official guide to travel and tourism in the UK, has predicted that the number of overseas visitors to the country will fall this year, from 32 million in 2008 to 31.7 million.
At a tourism summit in Liverpool last week, industry leaders warned that the downturn could result in 114,000 job losses over the next three years, and called on the Government to join the private sector in a multi-million-pound campaign to promote Britain as a "value for money" destination. The campaign will be launched in April. Tourism is currently Britain's fifth largest industry – it generated £114bn last year.
"Potentially, we are going to see more visitors from Europe and the US, as people come to take advantage of the favourable exchange rate," said Elliott Frisby, a spokesman for VisitBritain. "However, the international media doesn't seem to be saying that it is a great time to visit Britain yet.
"More needs to be done internationally to make people aware that Britain is an affordable destination."
Hotel room €128 (£112.85)
iPod Nano €121 (£107)
Trip on the London Eye €17 (£15)
Big Bus Co two-day pass €20.42 (£18)
Coffee €2.55 (£2.25)
Hotel room €173 (£152.52)
iPod Nano €149 (£131.36)
Trip up Eiffel Tower €10.50 (£9.26)
L'Open Tour €28 (£24.69)
Coffee €6.70 (£5.90)
Hotel room €148 (£88.80)
iPod Nano €138.6 (£99)
Trip on the London Eye €21 (£15)
Big Bus Co two-day pass €30.80 (£22)
Coffee €3.15 (£2.25)
Hotel room €167 (£100.20)
iPod Nano €159 (£95.40)
Trip up Eiffel Tower €10 (£6)
L'Open Tour €28 (£16.80)
Coffee €6 (£3.60)