US tourists drive rebound in foreign visitors to London’s top attractions

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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 US visitors taking advantage of relaxed Covid-19 testing requirements and a strong dollar.

However, tourism bodies fear that the slow rebound of the Asian market — particularly high-spending Chinese tourists potentially deterred by the end of duty-free shopping for non-EU visitors — will crimp the recovery.

The Tower of London received more than 75,000 visitors during the week that ended July 3. This was the highest total since the outbreak of pandemic. The US accounted for 45% of the ticket sales to the castle’s 944-year-old castle in June. This is an increase from 27% before. pandemic.

The visitor numbers to the Royal Museums Greenwich sites (which include the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark Clipper and Westminster Abbey) increased by 83 percent and 71% respectively during the same time period. According to operators, both attractions depend on international visitors for most of their ticket sales. However, they are recovering much faster than expected.

Paul Baumann, receiver general at 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 a “priceless advertisement” for visitors from around the world.

Tourists visiting Westminster Abbey on Friday © Anna Gordon/FT

“If they’re going to go somewhere for their first trip after the pandemic, it strikes me that the place most Americans reach for first is the UK,” said Baumann. He added that the UK had “shaken off” the bad publicity it received early on in the pandemic when it was derided as “plague island”.

“Europeans . . . were first to return, and now we’re seeing Americans returning to London in significant numbers, and that’s particularly important because they prioritise going to visitor attractions and are big spenders,” said Bernard Donoghue, chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, adding that sterling falling by 13 per cent against the dollar since the start of the year had been a boon to tourism from the US.

The US government removed the Covid-19 requirement for inbound travelers in June. This allowed citizens to travel freely abroad.

“London’s appeal remains undimmed,” said Dan Wolfe, commercial director of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that runs six UK palaces, including the Tower of London. “Despite events of the last few years, London’s culture and history will always be a draw for international visitors.”

Operators are now optimistic that the positive trend has led to optimism that previous projections that international spending and visitor numbers would not recover from pre-pandemic levels by 2025 might prove too optimistic.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), while April’s inbound tourism visits were down 33% on 2019, they were still higher than the 3.2mn that was recorded in 2019. However, spending was just 9% lower than 2019 levels.

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

“Even though [tourism from the] US is going very well, there is a concern that a lot of visitors are travelling using travel vouchers issued in 2020 and 2021, and they are burning through their pandemic savings pot, so there are still concerns about what’s going to happen further down the road,” said Croft.

London could be seen as less appealing shopping destination by wealthy individuals from China, where duty-free shopping is no longer available to non-EU citizens.

According to Global Blue, despite being responsible for only 4% of non-EU visitors to Britain in 2019, Chinese tourists were responsible for 26% of tax-free shopping spending.

Now, they can no longer reclaim the 20 per cent value added tax paid on purchases; the worry is they, and other keen shoppers, will “abandon” London in favour 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 about the slow rebound of the Asian market © Anna Gordon/FT

“Why would the biggest spenders from the US or China choose London to buy designer clothes when they can get the same item 20 per cent cheaper in Paris, Milan or Madrid?,” asked Barnes.

He also added that the UK visa system was “not as good a product” as the 26-nation Schengen visa, because of bureaucratic delays and the EU scheme allowing multiple re-entry as part of its visa waiver programme. The UK’s new visa-free Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme won’t be implemented in full until 2024.

Furthermore, China’s continued zero-Covid policy, which includes official edicts against all “unnecessary travel”, has resulted in a near total collapse in Chinese international tourism.

Baumann said the slow recovery of tourism demand from Asia was “the main thing holding back” tickets sales at Westminster Abbey from the pre-pandemic peak, along with “a bit of weakness” in demand from continental Europe. Just 3% of all ticket sales to Westminster Abbey in May was made by Asian tourists, compared to 23 percent in the same month 2019.

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

“That’s a big loss to stomach,” said Paddy Rodgers, director at the Royal Museums Greenwich. “We have no visibility on when travel from Asia will recover. For the time being, Americans flooding back to London and the strong dollar has been our saving grace.”

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