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Historic icons and restored relics. Coastal gems and glorious gardens. Cultural hubs. I can go on and on about the myriad reasons U.S. travelers flock to Great Britain annually, but that was pre-COVID. After this past year, what has happened to U.S. traveler sentiment and what is the forecast for Great Britain’s tourism recovery?

During this week’s ExploreGB Virtual, I sat in on a presentation by Richard Nicholls, VisitBritain’s head of research and forecasting, to get the hard numbers on visitor arrivals, and to learn what the U.S. traveler mindset is when it comes to leisure travel in general and Britain in particular.

By the Numbers
VisitBritain’s latest central scenario forecast for inbound tourism to Great Britain in 2021 (released January 2021), has visitors at 11.7 million—that’s up 21 percent on 2020, but down 71 percent on 2019; and in terms of spending, it’s up 16 percent on 2020, but down 77 percent on 2019. Nicholls noted that this is “likely to be revised down again in the March update. The key dynamic being vaccines vs. variants. Each of these will progress at different rates in different countries.”

Nicholls also pointed to the Oxford Economics forecast, which is “projecting it will take quite a few years for Great Britain to get back to where we were in pre-COVID times. So, until 2025 in terms of visitor levels and inbound visitor spend not until 2027. There are a number of reasons for that—one of them is because it’s going to take some time until the world is fully vaccinated and then we have to think about vaccinations that will work with the new variants as well. It’s not going to be that you switch on a light and it’ll all roll back instantaneously; it will take some time.

“We are also looking at demand factor like the economic hit, and the supply issue as well—will connectivity, capacity be the same as it was pre-COVID. It may take a few years for it to return to more normal records.”

Traveler Sentiment
In December, VisitBritain, in partnership with VisitScotland, Visit Wales and London & Partners, conducted a survey of international travelers—people who had traveled abroad once in the last three years—to gauge travelers’ mindsets when it comes to leisure travel.

“Seventy percent of those surveyed said that they were likely to take an international trip this year, 45 percent said they were definitely going to take an international trip,” said Gavin Landry, VisitBritain’s director for the Americas. “And of those who responded that they were likely to take an international trip, almost two-thirds have not yet decided where they are going to go and have not yet booked their travel. All the more reason for us to stay actively planning and working with our partners for the recovery.”

In terms of U.S. travelers specifically, 69 percent intend to travel abroad for leisure, with 53 percent noting they are going on a vacation, and 36 percent saying they are traveling to visit a friend or relative. The top travel drivers include the availability of a vaccine/treatment against coronavirus; money-back guarantee; and what the virus and vaccine situation is at the destination.

Fifty-two percent of international leisure trip intenders are considering Europe, and among them, 24 percent are looking at Britain. In terms of attitudes to travel, 72 percent are looking for less crowded places to visit, even if it means “missing” must-see attractions; 60 percent intend to will take fewer but longer vacations; 57 percent will leave booking until later/last minute and 50 percent will favor destinations they’ve been before rather than new places.

When it comes to accommodations, 76 percent are looking at a hotel chain, which 46 percent are considering B&B and 42 percent will opt for boutique hotels. Do keep those historic houses and castles top of mind, though, as 38 percent are looking at those as options. In terms of travel party, only 3 percent are considering being part of a tour group, with most respondents, 79 percent, saying they will travel with their spouse/partner.

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