Grand tour: Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster in London
THE GLOBAL economic crisis took a heavy toll on travel to and from Britain last year, figures released yesterday showed, while the first quarter of 2009 was also gloomy for the tourism industry. Visits to Britain fell to 31.9 million, down 2.7 per cent from 2007 and the first fall since 2001, when the 9/11 attacks and a foot-and-mouth outbreak dented global travel, a report by the Office for National Statistics showed. The decline persisted into the first quarter of this year, the statistics office said, suggesting tough times ahead for holiday companies, airlines and the hotel industry. Visits by Britons abroad also dropped in 2008, marking the first decline in two-way travel - both from Britain and to it - since the Gulf War in 1991. "Undoubtedly the economic downturn has had an impact," said David Savage, manager of the International Passenger Survey, which covers 90 per cent of visits to and from Britain. In the first quarter of this year, visits by British residents abroad fell by 21 per cent year-on-year, following a nine per cent fall in the last quarter of 2008. The decline was driven in part by a drop in the number of holidays being sold, the compilers of the survey said, with a downturn in winter destinations such as Switzerland and Austria. Visits by travellers from the US, where the credit crisis led to the collapse of major banking giants such as Lehman Brothers, fell sharply, pushing Americans to third from first in the ranking of top visitors to Britain.
"The fall from the US has been going on for the past couple of years. It could be the economy hitting them earlier than us," said Savage. The decline takes US visits back to 2001 levels. But despite the falls in the number of visits, a favourable foreign exchange rate boosted total spending, both in Britain and by Britons travelling abroad, the survey showed. Foreign visitors to Britain spent £16.3bn ($26.5bn) in 2008, while spending by Britons abroad rose to £36.8bn ($60bn), reaching record levels. "People will come here with a budget and when you look at the currency, their budget increases," said Savage. Sterling lost 25 per cent against the dollar and 30 per cent against the euro in 2008. On the bright side, the survey showed that visits from France and Ireland - the number one and two ranked countries for visitors respectively - continued to increase in 2008. Britain is the sixth most visited country in the world, according to the World Tourism Organisation, with France, Spain, the US, China and Italy filling the top spots.
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