US tourists drive rebound in foreign visitor numbers at top London attractions

International tourists are flocking to London’s top attractions in greater numbers than expected as the country emerges from the pandemic, driven by an influx of American visitors taking advantage of relaxed Covid-19 testing requirements and a strong dollar.

However, tourism bodies are concerned that the slow rebound in the Asian market – especially high-spending Chinese tourists potentially discouraged by the end of duty-free shopping for non-European visitors – could dampen the recovery.

The Tower of London welcomed more than 70,000 visitors in the week ending July 3, slightly exceeding the equivalent week in 2019 for the first time since the start of the pandemic. In June, American visitors accounted for 45% of ticket sales for the 944-year-old castle, up from 27% before the pandemic.

Over the same period, the number of visitors to the sites of the Royal Museums in Greenwich, which include the Royal Observatory and the clipper Cutty Sark, and Westminster Abbey, reached 83% and just under 70 respectively. % of 2019 levels. Both attractions depend on international visitors for the majority of their ticket sales, which are rebounding much faster than expected, according to their operators.

Paul Baumann, Receiver General of Westminster Abbey, said the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in early June had “created a buzz” around the church, in which 39 coronations have taken place since 1066, providing “publicity invaluable” to visitors from all over the world.

Tourists visiting Westminster Abbey on Friday © Anna Gordon / FT

“If they’re going somewhere for their first post-pandemic trip, I’m struck by the fact that the place most Americans arrive first is the UK,” Baumann said. He added that the UK had “shaken off” the bad publicity it received at the start of the pandemic when it was branded a “plague island”.

” Europeans. . . were the first to return, and now we’re seeing Americans returning to London in huge numbers, and that’s especially important because they prioritize tourist attractions and are big spenders,” said Bernard Donoghue, chief executive. from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, adding that the 13% fall in the pound against the dollar since the start of the year had been a boon for tourism from the United States.

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In June, the US government also ended the Covid-19 testing requirement for inbound travelers, making overseas travel easier for US citizens.

“London’s appeal remains intact,” said Dan Wolfe, commercial director of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that runs six UK palaces, including the Tower of London. “Despite the events of recent years, London’s culture and history will always attract international visitors.”

The positive trajectory has sparked optimism among operators that earlier projections that international visitor numbers and spending would not return to pre-pandemic levels before 2025 could prove unduly bleak.

In April this year, visits by inbound tourists were down 33% from the 3.2 million recorded the same month in 2019, but spending was only 9% below 2019 levels, according to the Office for National Statistics.

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But Joss Croft, chief executive of trade body UKInbound, said the current rise in visits and spending could prove to be “a temporary spike”.

“Even though [tourism from the] The United States is doing very well, it is feared that many visitors will travel using travel vouchers issued in 2020 and 2021, and they will burn their pandemic savings pot, so there are always concerns about what will happen move further down the road,” Croft said.

The end of duty-free shopping for non-EU visitors after the UK left last year could make London a less attractive shopping destination for wealthy individuals, especially in the high-spending Chinese market.

In 2019, Chinese tourists made up just 4% of non-EU visitors to the UK, but were responsible for 26% of spending on duty-free shopping, according to Swiss payments company Global Blue.

Now they can no longer claim the 20% value added tax paid on purchases; the concern is that they and other keen shoppers will “ditch” London in favor of other European capitals, said Paul Barnes, chief executive of the Association of International Retail.

Tourists in London
Tourists are returning to London but concern remains over the slow rebound in the Asian market © Anna Gordon/FT

“Why would high spenders in the US or China choose London to shop for designer clothes when they can get the same item 20% cheaper in Paris, Milan or Madrid?” Barnes asked.

He also added that the UK visa system was ‘not as good a product’ as the Schengen visa for 26 countries, due to bureaucratic delays and the EU system allowing multiple entries under its scheme. visa waiver. The UK’s new visa-free electronic travel authorization system will not be fully implemented until 2024.

In addition, China’s continuation of zero-Covid policy, which includes official decrees against all “unnecessary travel”, has led to a near total collapse of Chinese international tourism.

Baumann said the slow recovery in tourist demand from Asia was “the main thing holding back” ticket sales at Westminster Abbey from the pre-pandemic peak, as well as a “bit of a weakness” in demand from continental Europe. In May, Asian visitors accounted for just 3% of total ticket sales, down from 23% in the same month in 2019.

Asian tourists typically make up a fifth of the £14m turnover of the four sites run by the Royal Museums Greenwich. At the Royal Observatory gift shop, the average spend on a Chinese credit card was £200 before the pandemic.

“It’s a big waste for the stomach,” said Paddy Rodgers, director of the Royal Museums, Greenwich. “We have no visibility on when travel from Asia will resume. For now, Americans are returning to London and the strong dollar has been our saving grace.

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