May 30, 2023
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New official figures show UK tourist visits still well behind 2019

May 30, 2023

The headlines around the latest figures for arrivals in the UK may have dominated certain sectors of the press due to high immigration levels, but one key issue went almost unnoticed — the Office for National Statistics International Passenger Survey has shown that tourist visitors to the UK remain well below 2019 levels.

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That adds to the weight of evidence that the government has said it’s seeking around whether the VAT-free shopping perk for tourists should be reinstated.

The ONS said that visits to and from the UK last year were “significantly up on 2021 but still well below the levels recorded before the pandemic. Spending on visits to and from the UK was also higher but remained short of the estimated totals for 2019”.

The number of visits made by overseas residents to the UK in 2022 was 31.2 million. This was much higher than the 6.4 million recorded in 2021, when pandemic-related restrictions affected travel.

Despite the rise, the number was still below the 40.9 million seen in 2019, according to estimates from the International Passenger Survey.

This is just what retailers and the bodies representing them have been saying for some time, with many citing the abolition of the ability to claim back VAT on purchases made while in Britain and carried home when the tourist exits the country (rather than having the items shipped home) as being the key factor. 

That’s despite a weight of evidence showing mainland Europe’s tourists traffic is bouncing back strongly. Only last week, tourist payments specialist Planet released its April figures that showed France, Italy and Spain in particular are booming with Chinese, American and Gulf tourists back in large numbers.

And while it’s unfair to compare Europe’s figures for April 2023 with the UK’s for last year, there was also plenty of evidence already being seen last year (both statistical and anecdotal) that tourists were shunning Britain and opting for Europe due to the end of tax-free shopping.

Dee Corsi, CEO of the New West Company and Chair of the Association of International Retail, said of the new survey: “The UK’s failure to recover to 2019 levels seen in today’s figures are concerning when compared to the uplift being seen elsewhere in Europe. Post-pandemic, pent-up demand has seen visitor numbers and spend recover faster in some European cities, particularly driven by US visitors, but the UK’s growth is lagging behind. 

“The only factor that can explain a difference in growth is the removal of tax-free shopping, which puts us at a 20% price disadvantage when compared to our European neighbours. Our fear is that as awareness of the tourist tax grows, our reputation as a leading global shopping destination will shrink.”

She added that new hurdles for EU residents, who will soon need to pay for new Electronic Travel Authorisation before entering the UK, “could have been offset by becoming the only European country they could shop tax-free”.

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