Nine months on and long overdue, it’s time to address the dreaded “b” word. No, not “blue passports” (although you’re pretty close). I mean of course, “Brexit”. Alright, stop groaning at the back.
As the CEO of a global travel media company, with a workforce that – in our London office anyway – is roughly 60% non-British, I’m often asked about Brexit and what its impact will be. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does – you only need to flick through The Spectator and The New Statesman (two examples of flourishing print media, by the way) to see some trenchant, yet widely divergent expert opinions.
What I do know, is that the run-up time to triggering article 50 and towards an actual Brexit has actually been pretty beneficial for tourism and, in turn, travel media.
The pound’s declining value has been a magnet for foreign tourists who made 2.9m visits to the UK in January, up 11% on 2015. Those visitors spent £1.5bn while they were here - 15% more than they did last year - while holiday and business visits were also up a record-breaking 19% and 22% respectively. The difference being when they arrive now, their money goes roughly 20% further than this time a year ago.
The rest of 2017 looks pretty rosy for GB Tourism PLC too, with flight bookings to the UK up 19% over the summer months. Our advertising partner, Visit Britain forecasts sustained growth over the remainder of the year, predicting a total of 38.1m inbound visits – and a total spend of £24.1bn. Little wonder we recently inked (sorry) a deal to promote both the unique heritage and innovation of the British Isles via exclusive supplements in American Way and easyJet Traveller. It's a pretty cool country to visit – and we don't just mean London.
Dig a little deeper and some of the figures are simply eye-watering. For example, international tax-free shopping spend in the UK increased by 55% in February, 25% of that spent by tourists from the Middle East. Qatari visitors alone spent an incredible £1,736 per transaction. With the post-Ramadan holiday of Eid Al-Fitr on the horizon, expect those figures to increase still further.
Over in China, bookings to the UK were up 81% over the course of their New Year. These days, Chinese visitors are some of the UK’s highest spenders, spending an average of £2,174 per visit, more than three and a half times the average foreign tourist.
As for America, that relationship has become even more special, with US tourists spending 17% more in the UK at the tail end of last year, pretty much equivalent to the amount that the pound depreciated against the dollar after the referendum result.
Ah! You may say. But that’s just opportunists taking advantage of a weak pound - what about British travellers? Surely we will all be caravanning on the Norfolk broads and visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick* from now on? Well, invisible heckler, lovely as Great Yarmouth is in summer, the departure lounges at UK airports aren’t going to get any quieter for the time being.
The Office of National Statistics said Brits made 4.6m visits abroad this January, 9% more than they did in the same month last year. What’s more, they spent 5% more while they were away. Some territories have seen an even greater benefit – 14% more British tourists touched down in Spain this February, spending 17% more on hotels, drinks, meals out, car hire & shopping. So much for a Brexit-induced hangover. Maybe they just had to get off the island?
Looking forward, our friends at easyJet have announced they are set to fly 2.4m passengers over the upcoming Bank Holiday in the busiest Easter getaway in the airline’s history. Numbers will peak on Good Friday, when almost 250,000 passengers are expected to fly, with 141,134 passengers setting off from easyJet’s UK airports alone.
So, if I had a big old crystal ball, I would suggest it’s still a bit too foggy to clearly foretell the long-term direction of the UK and European markets, but I do know that whatever happens, millions of people will still want to either get away and escape the UK, or visit to appreciate the true beauty and history of this amazing isle.
*Which is actually pretty good