Britain is banking on a bumper year for tourism in 2012. The Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee provide two compelling reasons for people at home and from abroad to harvest a premium crop of special events, and also discover what else the UK has to offer holidaymakers.
VisitBritain is expecting more than 30 million people to travel to these shores this year and that they will make the tills ring to the tune of £17bn while they're here. Although the number of inbound visitors is likely around the same as in 2011, the national tourism agency reckons that would be a good outcome considering the unpredictability of the global economic climate.
Sandie Dawe, chief executive of VisitBritain, believes 2012 will provide "an unprecedented opportunity" to showcase the UK as never before. She's confident it will "revitalise mature markets and help us get Britain on the destination wishlist of first-time visitors from growth markets such as Brazil, China, India and Russia". That's if they can get through passport control at Heathrow, of course.
Yet, for tourism chiefs, the emphasis isn't just on inbound visitors. Sarah Long, head of corporate communications at VisitEngland, believes that as Britain goes under the spotlight people living here will take a closer look at what's on their own doorsteps. "Some fantastic events are taking place up and down the country, many of them free," she says. "There'll be celebrations where the Olympic torch overnights, and there's the Cultural Olympiad, with events like the art installation along the length of Hadrian's Wall [part of the London 2012 Festival]. Hopefully, this will inspire us to take breaks in this country."
But will we be expected to reach deeper in our pockets just because of the Olympics are being held here? Ms Long maintains that although prices will be driven by demand, there will still be plenty of choice. "We market England as very good value, we don't say it's cheap. In research 78 per cent of those surveyed said it was good or excellent value for money," she says. To encourage holidaymaking whatever your budget, Visit England has launched great2012offers.com, a website detailing thousands of special deals, from accommodation to attractions to performances, with discounts of 20.12 per cent or more, which will run until the end of the Paralympic Games on 9 September.
There is also plenty to do in England, Scotland and Wales that isn't directly related to the Diamond Jubilee or the Olympics. In fact, if you head to Llantwyrd Wells in Wales from 17 August to 2 September you can thumb your nose at the Olympics by attending the first World Alternative Games (01591 610270; worldalternativegames.co.uk; free). The quirky programme offers spectators the thrill of witnessing unlikely sports such as bog snorkelling, wife carrying and Pooh sticks.
Meanwhile, at Sudeley Castle (01242 602308; sudeleycastle.co.uk) in Gloucestershire, Katherine Parr, rather than Elizabeth II, will be the centre of attention. This stately pile was where the sixth wife of Henry VIII lived and died. The 500th anniversary of her birth will be marked with historical, literary and musical events until 28 October.
Other festivities taking place in Britain this year include celebrations of Charles Dickens' bicentenary, which will continue throughout 2012 in the south of England. The Great Expectations Festival runs from 22 June to 1 July at various locations in Portsmouth (portsmouthfestivities.co.uk). It features literature, music, film, theatre and exhibitions.
Coleridge Cottage (01278 732662; national trust.org.uk/Coleridge-cottage), the home of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is now open at Nether Stowey in Somerset after a £175,000 restoration project by the National Trust that has breathed 18th-century life back into the building.
The work of Lincolnshire local boy Sir Isaac Newton will be celebrated at The Gravity Fields Festival (01476 406158; gravityfieldsfestival.co.uk) in Grantham from 21-28 September.
The spectacularly rejuvenated National Museum of Scotland (0300 123 6789; nms.ac.uk) in Edinburgh attracted 1.5 million visitors last year, making it the nation's most popular draw. This summer's big exhibition celebrates Catherine the Great, and includes loans from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Major new attractions in England include two maritime greats. The tea clipper Cutty Sark (020-8858 4422; rmg.co.uk) reopened last month, following a £50m restoration, five years after the devastating fire. And Southampton's SeaCity Museum (023 8083 3007; seacitymuseum.co.uk) opened its doors in April, including an exhibition about RMS Titanic to mark the 100th year since the liner sank.
In London, the 19th-century landmark Café Royal (020-8253 6513; hotelcaferoyal.com; doubles from £400 per night) is being transformed into a five-star hotel, due to open this summer. The Grill Room, a favourite hangout of celebrities since the days of Oscar Wilde, will be preserved along with other Grade I-listed areas of the building. The transformation will form part of a remodelling of the southern end of Regent Street.
Finally, Britain has put together a world-beating new attraction as the final stretch of the Wales Coast Path (walescoastpath.gov.uk) is officially opened, offering 870 miles of scenic possibilities.
All these new attractions and events can provide the centrepiece for a memorable holiday at home – and there's more where they came from. So, whether you're headed into the towns, countryside or coast, read on for inspiring ideas on how to create your own Great British Escape...
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