It’s a country that has just endured national fuel shortages, isolated food shortages, and its government voted this fall to dump untreated sewage onto its famous coastlines. Oh – and it has the second highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world.
So who would want to go on vacation in the UK at the moment?
Not many, the figures show.
For 2021, national tourist board Visit Britain has forecast that visitor numbers will be lower even than in 2020, when travel restrictions were at their highest.
Visitor numbers to the UK plummeted from 40.9 million in 2019 to 11.1 million in 2020 – a dip of 73%.
But 2021 seems to have gone even worse for the UK’s inbound tourism sector, with just 7.4 million visitors predicted to visit before the year is out – down 82% on 2019.
And although all destinations, of course, have been devastated by the pandemic, the UK’s figures show that travelers aren’t bouncing back as they are in nearby countries, which have seen visitor numbers swell as they loosened restrictions.
Neighbor France, for instance, saw a 34.9% growth of tourists in 2021 from 2020, bringing in an extra $43 billion to the economy; while flights to summer hotspots Spain and Turkey have recovered to 64% and 74% of their 2019 figures, even for flights this winter.
Greece was almost back to pre-pandemic levels over the summer, with 86% of the arrivals of July and August 2019, according to aviation data analysts Forward Keys. The UK, in turn, managed just 14.3% of 2019 levels, according to its data.
Industry insiders describe the UK’s situation as a perfect storm: rocketing Covid rates while European neighbors were stabilizing; inconsistent travel rules; and the effects of Brexit, which are finally being felt, both within the UK and by those wishing to travel there.
Add in relatively low government spending on a tourism recovery plan, as other countries go all out to court visitors, and you’re left with plummeting numbers.
“The problems facing the UK are multiple, and not just to do with Covid,” says Tom Jenkins, CEO of the ETOA – the trade association for inbound tourism to Europe.
Kurt Janson, director of the UK’s Tourism Alliance, knows who he thinks is to blame. “Some of the problems are government-inflicted as well as Covid-inflicted,” he says.
So what exactly is going on in Blighty?
First, of course, there’s the pandemic.
While the UK was the first country in Europe to kick off its vaccination program, in recent months it has lagged behind its peers. Just under 69% of Britons have been vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University. Portugal, on the other hand, is at an 87% vaccination rate.
And while many other tourist-heavy countries have continued mask mandates – in France, Spain and Italy, masks must be worn at all times indoors – the UK has trumpeted the sloughing off of restrictions. In November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced criticism for not wearing a mask during a tour of a hospital.
But while the relaxation of the rules was intended to open the UK up, those outside are seeing it in a different way.
“Safety is the number one concern for Chinese visitors – we’re more sensitive and more careful than other countries,” says Marcus Lee, CEO of China Travel Online.
The UK’s case numbers spiraled far beyond other European countries during September and October. And although numbers are on the rise across the continent, with countries such as Germany now seeing massive spikes in infection rates and the Netherlands re-entering lockdown, the UK still registered the second highest number of cases in the world over the past four weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University – second only to the US, whose population nudging 330 million dwarfs the UK’s 67 million.
Harsh quarantine rules mean outbound travel from China is effectively blocked, so Chinese visitors aren’t going anywhere right now. But when they do – Lee reckons in the first half of 2022, when almost 100% of the country has been vaccinated – he says they won’t be making a beeline for the UK.
“Eventually, I hope the UK cases will go down, and I think you will see more Chinese when that happens.”
Europeans, too, are proving reluctant to hop over to what, late last year, the New York Times called “plague island.”
Fabio Bergonzini, from Bologna, Italy, used to be a regular visitor to the UK. A fluent English speaker and lover of all things British, he visited England three times in 2019 – city breaks in London and Manchester plus a country road trip around the northern region of Yorkshire – but has not been back since the pandemic started.
“I miss the UK so much, but it sounds a little scary,” he says.
“Maybe Italians are a bit more cautious because we were heavily affected first – March last year was really hard to endure.
“But the general perception from here is that in the UK, people don’t regard Covid as an issue anymore – as if it’s not even discussed. Some Scottish friends told me that everyone in Scotland is going around with masks, but people in England aren’t. Considering that I don’t leave home without a mask, I’d feel a bit strange being the only one masked in my lovely UK.”
Lee agrees. “We [in China] wear masks, so maybe we wouldn’t feel safe seeing no one wearing a mask. Maybe we wouldn’t want to take the Tube.” While the mask mandate has been removed by government, one has been imposed on London transport by mayor Sadiq Khan – yet Londoners say it is often ignored, and rarely enforced.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different rules from England – in Scotland, for example, masks are still mandatory indoors. But it’s the pictures of the English – Boris Johnson was again photographed at the COP26 summit sitting maskless next to 95-year-old naturalist David Attenborough – that are being beamed around the world.
Patricia Yates, deputy CEO of Visit Britain, admits that the UK needs to improve its pandemic optics.
“The government handed back control to the people and said that we don’t want to be an authoritarian government, it’s up to personal choice. I think that’s more in the British tradition, but I appreciate it’s different to other countries,” she says.
“Therefore I think we have to make our message of reassurance explicit. I’ve been asked for my vaccination certificate going to theaters and events, but I’m not sure international visitors realize there are still requirements here. I’m not sure we’re telling that story.”
Locking Europeans out
Before the pandemic, it was Brexit that was concerning the UK’s tourism industry.
The UK’s exit from the EU was always going to cause upheaval in the travel industry – not least because Europeans are the second most valuable market for inbound tourism after Americans.
Since October 1, EU citizens can no longer travel to the UK on their ID cards; instead, they must use passports.
“That’s enormously important,” says Tom Jenkins, who says that around three quarters of Europeans don’t have passports, since they can travel around Europe with their ID cards.
“For a family of four, the logistical and cost implications of traveling to the UK become really prohibitive. It affects school trips too – if some kids don’t have European passports, before they’d have used ID cards, but now they’d need a visa. It means schools will either have to exclude kids on grounds of ethnicity – or they won’t bother coming to the UK and we’ll see a genuine drop in visitors.”
Janson calls it a “total disaster” for school groups and students, saying that it would “go against equality rules” to take some kids to the UK and leave others behind.
“There’s a whole industry of English language schools based on student groups coming over for six weeks – they spend a couple of weeks learning English and then take cultural trips,” he says.
“They get an immersive experience in English language and UK culture, and it’s worth about £1.5 billion per year, just from European students alone.”
Now, he says, European groups are picking Ireland and Malta over the UK, as they have English language schools, but not the red tape. According to English UK, the first year of the pandemic saw an 83.6% drop in students.
“Feedback has been bleak, suggesting most European parents would not go to the trouble and expense of obtaining passports for what are often only two or three-week study holidays,” says a spokesperson for the group.
“If only one student in a larger group does not have a passport, the whole group may alter their plans and travel elsewhere.”
No more tax free shopping
Another Brexit side effect is hitting big-spending travelers from around the world, as well as Europeans.
On January 1, 2021, the government abolished the VAT Retail Export Scheme, which allowed tax-free shopping in the UK for non-EU citizens. That makes the UK the only European country not offering tax-free shopping to visitors from outside the EU.
A government spokesperson told CNN: “Around 92% of non-EU visitors to the UK didn’t use the VAT Retail Export Scheme and extending it to the EU would have substantially increased the costs of the scheme.”
So rather than allow EU citizens to join the scheme post-Brexit, they axed it entirely.
The Treasury spokesperson continued: “VAT RES is very unlikely to act as a significant motive for visiting the UK and tax-free shopping is still available in store when goods are posted to overseas addresses.”
But industry insiders say it’ll have a massive effect on high-rolling tourists from China and the Middle East.
And the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent watchdog for the UK’s public finances, has queried the government’s figures, while the Treasury Select Committee – a bipartisan parliamentary committee – asked the government for further analysis in October 2020, but has yet to receive a response.
“With Brexit, we had the opportunity to make the UK the shopping destination of Europe, but instead of expanding the scheme, they got rid of it for everyone,” says Janson.
“It’s basically putting a big sign at Heathrow telling people from China and the Middle East to go to Paris or Milan and do their shopping there. It’s a real self-inflicted wound on the tourist industry.”
A spokesperson for the UK’s Association of International Retail told CNN that the axing of the scheme is predicted to lead to a drop of 38% in retail sales to non-EU visitors, compared to 2019 – a loss of £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) to the economy.
But that’s not all. “There are also likely to be indirect losses as high-spending visitors travel to the UK less often and spend less time here, preferring instead to visit countries where they can buy goods for 20% less than in the UK,” they said.
Visitors from China and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries comprise 4% of visitors to the UK, but make around 60% of tax-free purchases.
“Research shows that over 50% of Chinese visitors and over 60% of visitors from the GCC would reduce the number of times they visit the UK and the length of time they spend here – as a direct result of ending tax-free shopping,” they said.
Marcus Lee agrees. “Essentially products will be less competitive in price, hence Chinese [tourists] may go somewhere else,” he says.
Petrol, food and staffing shortages
Maybe it’s Covid, maybe it’s Brexit, but the UK service economy has also taken a hit this year – worse than other European countries.
“There’s a widespread perception that the UK is struggling to maintain its service economy,” says Jenkins.
“Stories about fuel shortages, food shortages and problems with staffing in hotels are circulating. None of them indicate a destination you’d wish to have a holiday in.
“There are a lot of alternative options within Europe which don’t suffer from this perception and are far easier to enter.”
Although Chinese tourists “couldn’t care less” about the domestic politics of their vacation destinations, Marcus Lee says that supply chain issues are a different story.
“There is definitely concern,” he says. “Like any tourist, you don’t want to go to a place that’s short of food or insecure.”
The UK has been particularly badly hit by a Europe-wide lack of truck drivers, with many leaving the country after Brexit. October saw countrywide fuel shortages, with the military brought in to deliver it to gas stations around the country.
And food shortages linked to the truck driver crisis have led industry leaders to warn that Brits might not get all the ingredients for their typical Christmas meals this year.
Even government minister George Eustice seemed to flag upcoming difficulties, telling TV viewers in October that they’d get their turkey dinners as long as there was “sufficient HGV [heavy goods vehicle] capacity.”
Parliamentarians also voted in October to allow partially treated sewage to be released into the UK’s seas and waterways, due to the lack of drivers. The move was reversed after widespread public outcry but will do little to promote Britain’s myriad beaches.
The government is offering short term visas to truck drivers – many of whom left due to post-Brexit rules on “unskilled workers” – to try and ease the crisis.
One rule for them, one for us
There’s one more thing that could be putting off visitors to the UK, think travel industry experts: the country’s confusing restrictions.
The UK’s traffic light system of countries was abolished in October, with all countries removed from the “red list” of hotel quarantine on November 1. But while that means the UK is now more laissez-faire about entry rules than many other countries – you don’t need a negative test to travel to the country, though you do need a day-two lateral flow test – its regulations are stricter for foreign travelers than for British citizens.
Double-vaccinated Britons “pinged” to inform them that they’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive do not have to quarantine. But those who were vaccinated abroad – even in a country whose vaccinated program is recognized by the UK – do. So if someone on your flight to the UK tests positive, and you test negative, you still have to quarantine if vaccinated abroad.
David and Barbara Keith were traveling to the UK from Boston last month when, on day three of their vacation, they were “pinged.”
Fully vaccinated with Pfizer shots and boosters, they tested negative on arrival – but someone on their flight to Heathrow tested positive.
Instead of attending the family and work reunions they’d planned, the couple had to quarantine for 10 days in the hotel in which they were given the news – despite being triple-vaccinated.
“No amount of logical arguing helped,” says Keith. They cut their long-planned trip short and “left as soon as we could,” ditching the reunions to race to Heathrow as soon as their quarantine ended.
The couple – who tested negative on the way home and twice more back in Boston – won’t be hurrying back to the UK. They have, says Keith, “no plans to travel any time soon.”
What’s more, where most European countries treat unvaccinated children the same way as the vaccinated adults they’re traveling with, the UK does things a little differently. Unvaccinated kids resident in the UK, or on a list of approved countries, don’t need to quarantine on arrival.
But those coming from countries not on the list must quarantine for 10 days – regardless of whether they test negative, and regardless of whether their parents need to quarantine or not.
As recently as October, the list of approved countries was around the 50 mark. It was expanded on October 11 to around 100 countries, and from November 22, all under 18s will be treated as fully vaccinated, wherever they’re coming from.
But the uncertainty is putting travelers off.
“The main factor for anyone [choosing a vacation] is: is it going to be dangerous, and what are the chances of my holiday being ruined – or a barrier to entry, like quarantine for 10 days,” says Janson.
“There’s nothing in the perception of the UK that would ameliorate your perceptions in terms of the safety or security of your holiday.”
Americans to the rescue
One thing that could help ease the UK out of its current mess? A decent marketing campaign, says Janson. Countries around the world struggled to outdo each other for 2021, with European countries in particular vying to attract those tourists who were willing to travel.
However, where other countries are plowing money in, the UK is cutting back.
Visit Britain’s core budget has been reduced by 35% in real terms over the past decade.
Patricia Yates says that a £7.2 million ($9.7 million) recovery campaign for the UK will launch in January, aimed at younger US and European tourists, and encouraging them to visit cities, which have been the hardest hit by the fall in visitors (since domestic tourism has boomed in rural and coastal spots).
But that ends from March, after which, “we need to wait and see what we’re given,” she says.
It’s easy to waste money on a campaign, she warns, but says that with a blank check, she’d want to reinforce links with the travel trade to “drive conversion,” reassess the UK’s visa regime to “keep the country safe but getting visitors to come” and maybe have another look at that controversial tax free shopping decision.
2022 will be a big year for Britain: it’s the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the Commonwealth Games will be held, and there’s the Festival UK 2022 which will create 10 public engagement projects, featuring everyone from artists to scientists in a bid to boost the UK’s creativity.
January will be key, says Janson – people tend to book in late December and early January, so the UK needs to turn things around by then.
Americans already seem to be on board – Visit Britain says there’s been an uptick of bookings ever since the US announced it would be relaxing its own restrictions. Yates says that the increase in flights since the November 8 opening will cut both ways.
In fact, says Visit Britain, inbound flight bookings from the US to the UK for this year’s holiday period have recovered to 62% of 2019 levels.
Nobody is denying there’s a long way to go, however. And with so many factors at play, it’s hard to know which is the most pressing.
As Kurt Janson says, ruefully: “It’s hard to know because nobody’s coming here.”