Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the country’s relationship with the EU has been fraught—to put it mildly. British and European lawmakers have also been stuck in back-and-forth deliberations over how the two nations will move forward following the U.K.’s official European exit, which as of now is set for Jan. 31. (That date, of course, has already been pushed back multiple times, but with a newly elected strong Conservative majority in Parliament, it’s expected to hold.)
As governing bodies work to settle trade deals and immigration policy, there’s another side to the Brexit equation: tourism.
With the U.K.’s relationship with the EU in flux, tourism seems like one sure thing. EU citizens will continue to be able to make short-term visits to the U.K. without a visa after Brexit. And with trade agreements still yet to be determined, tourism is more important than ever: After all, when European visitors make those short-term visits, they’ll likely be buying U.K. goods while they’re there to bring back home with them.
“We don’t need a trade deal for tourism,” Robin Johnson, Visit Britain’s director for Europe, told Adweek. “The ability of tourism to continue to act as a key driver of exports from the U.K. is quite powerful.”
While that much is true, Brexit means the number of Europeans coming to the U.K. to make those purchases has slightly dwindled. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, European interest in traveling to the U.K. has fallen: According to a September 2019 report on tourism from the House of Commons, the number of Europeans interested in visiting the U.K. had gone from 72% in August 2016 to 64% in March 2019. And research from Visit Britain found that 45% of European travelers had worries or reservations about traveling to the U.K. because of concerns over travel arrangements.
With all of continental Europe just a (relatively) quick flight—and, from some cities, train ride—away, Europeans have long been the largest group to visit the U.K. Even in 2018, two years after the referendum, Europeans made up 71% of visitors to the U.K., with 65% of those being from E.U. countries.
Tourism is big business in the U.K. According to Visit Britain, it is expected that by 2025, nearly 10% of jobs in the country (3.8 million) will be related to the tourism sector, and the U.K. tourism industry will be worth 257 billion pounds, almost 10% of the country’s GDP. With Europeans making up such a large number of U.K. visitors, a ding to the number of them arriving on British soil could have a major impact.
“The biggest issue we face is around uncertainty,” Johnson said. “We run research on a constant basis, which indicates to us that uncertainty is one of the biggest issues that customers from Europe have with the U.K., mostly around travel arrangements. So there’s a big focus for us at the moment, reinforcing the message that nothing changes in terms of travel arrangements to the U.K. from one day to the next when Brexit happens. Everything continues as before.”
Not everyone is wary of traveling to the U.K. at the moment. Johnson said Brexit has led to a tourism boost among Americans, whom he calls one of Visit Britain’s “most important markets, by volume and by value.” With the pound at its lowest levels in decades (in January 2010, 1 pound was equal to $1.61, whereas now, it’s down to $1.31, and has been as low as $1.20 in the past few months), the dollar has never been stronger, and travel to the U.K. has never been so affordable for Americans.
It shows in the numbers, too: Though the majority of inbound tourists to the U.K. are European, the U.S. is the country that sends the largest number of tourists to the U.K., with 3.9 million visitors from the U.S. in 2018. And they’re spending once they arrive in the U.K., too: Despite the fact that Europeans make up 71% of the U.K.’s inbound visitors, they only accounted for 49% of the £22.9 billion foreign visitors spent in the country in 2018.
“We are seeing record numbers of Americans coming to the U.K.,” he said. “We’ve got a strong marketing program in the U.S., flight bookings looking forward are tracking up, and, of course, we’ve got the real benefit of a weak pound, which offers great value for American businesses at the moment, which is having a great impact on the market.”
For the past two years, Visit Britain has been running its Love Great Britain campaign throughout its primary markets, including North America and Europe. The messaging in the campaign, however, depends on “different circumstances and different audiences,” and is adapted by region.
Even with Brexit-fueled uncertainty, the American boost has meant the overall tourism picture is “really positive” for the U.K., Johnson said. And sending a similarly sunny message out to potential travelers is paramount for Visit Britain.
“Tourism is an incredibly competitive industry,” he added, “and in terms of international promotion, to have that clear, strong, positive message out in market is really important.”