United Kingdom

Tourism in the economy

Tourism is a major part of the United Kingdom economy. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Tourism Satellite Account shows that tourism directly contributed an estimated GBP 62.4 billion in gross value added (GVA) in 2015. Tourism is growing at a faster rate than the overall UK economy, with an increase of 3.3% between 2014 and 2015 compared to 2.2% overall.

Tourism makes a substantial contribution to employment. In 2015, 1.6 million UK jobs were directly attributable to tourism. When considering jobs in tourism-related industries, this figure rises to approximately 3 million, or one in ten of all jobs.

In 2016, the number of international visits grew by 4% to a record 37.6 million from 2015, while the value of spending increased by 2% to GBP 22.5 billion. The top ten markets accounted for almost two in three visits (64%) and for over half of all spending (55%). The top five markets by volume were France, the United States, Germany, Ireland, and Spain. Visitors from the United States spent GBP 1.8 billion more than the next most valuable market by value, Germany, followed by France, Australia and Ireland.

London receives by far the highest proportion of inbound visits, nights and spending in the United Kingdom. For example, in 2016, London received 19.1 million overnight visits, representing total spending of GBP 11.9 billion. In the same year, other parts of United Kingdom accounted for 16 million overnight visits and associated visitor spend of GBP 7.8 billion. Of this figure, Scotland welcomed 2.7 million visits and received GBP 1.9 billion in spending, with the equivalent figures for Wales being 1.1 million visits and GBP 444 million. Northern Ireland received 2.6 million external visitors, including those from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The overall volume of domestic trips taken in Great Britain in 2015 increased by 9% to 124.4 million, while the number of bednights increased by 8% to 377.1 million. Expenditure on overnight trips also rose, increasing by 9% to GBP 24.8 billion. Of the total number of domestic overnight trips, 102.7 million were taken in England, along with 299.6 million bednights and expenditure of GBP 19.6 billion. In Scotland, there were 12 million trips, 41.3 million bednights and expenditure of GBP 3.3 billion, while for Wales, there were around 10.4 million trips, resulting in 36.2 million bednights and spending of GBP 2.0 billion; figures that represent a ten year high for Wales.

Tourism governance and funding

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is the sponsoring government body for tourism in the United Kingdom. Tourism is a devolved competence in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. DCMS retains responsibility for tourism in England and overseas promotion of Great Britain as a destination.

VisitBritain and VisitEngland are trading names of the British Tourist Authority (BTA), the UK Government public body responsible for tourism. Following the 2015 Spending Review, the Government clarified the distinct activities that BTA would undertake as VisitBritain and VisitEngland, each with a separate allocation of ring-fenced budget. As collaboration is critical to the success of VisitBritain and VisitEngland, operations have been brought together under the BTA Chief Executive.

VisitBritain is responsible for promoting Britain worldwide and developing its visitor economy. With core funding through DCMS and additional funding through the cross-government GREAT campaign, VisitBritain works with a range of private and public partners to grow the value of inbound tourism. VisitBritain has an annual target to increase international visitor spend in England, Wales, London and Scotland, attributed to its activity, by 1.5% above the level recorded by the International Passenger Survey (IPS). It also has a statutory function to advise Government on matters affecting tourism and to provide research and insight services.

VisitEngland is an advisory body which works to grow the value and quality of tourism in England.

VisitScotland is a public body responsible to the Scottish Government. Its core purpose is to maximise the economic benefit of tourism to Scotland. It has responsibility for marketing Scotland in the United Kingdom and internationally, encouraging the highest quality standards within the industry, providing visitor information, and implementing an events strategy to support tourism and raise the country’s international profile. Scotland’s enterprise agencies provide business support and investment to encourage growth in the tourism sector.

United Kingdom: Organisational chart of tourism bodies

Source: OECD, adapted from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), 2018.

Visit Wales sits within the portfolio of the Welsh Department for Economy and Infrastructure. It is responsible for formulating tourism policy, and encouraging investment in, and improving the quality of, the visitor experience in Wales. Visit Wales is also responsible for marketing Wales in the United Kingdom and internationally.

In Northern Ireland, the Department for the Economy is responsible for tourism strategy and policy and has oversight of two tourism organisations: Tourism Northern Ireland, in charge of product development and marketing to visitors from the island of Ireland, and Tourism Ireland, which markets the island of Ireland in Great Britain and overseas. In addition, Invest NI administers accommodation grants and provides business support and advice to tourism businesses.

DCMS funds BTA through a grant-in-aid funding settlement. For the spending period 2016-2020, BTA will receive approximately GBP 26.5 million per annum, of which GBP 19.5 million is for VisitBritain and GBP 7 million for VisitEngland. In addition, BTA receives approximately GBP 23 million per annum from the GREAT Campaign to promote Britain abroad. Tourism funding in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is determined by the devolved government.

Additional public funding was also made available in 2015-16 for a South West Tourism Growth Fund of GBP 5 million, and a Northern Tourism Growth Fund of GBP 10 million (extended to 2016-17) to support inbound tourism to these areas, largely through marketing.

Tourism policies and programmes

Published in 2016, the Tourism Action Plan, outlines the UK government’s five tourism priorities:

  • The tourism landscape: strengthening coordination and collaboration,

  • Skills: boosting apprenticeships and attracting more people to careers in tourism,

  • Common sense regulation: examining the scope for deregulation,

  • Transport: making it easier for visitors to explore by rail, bus and coach,

  • A GREAT Welcome: driving continuous improvements in the UK visa service.

The overall aim of VisitBritain is to grow international tourism and its benefits across Britain, with an emphasis on getting visitors to explore beyond London. This feeds through into its marketing campaigns, including the GREAT campaign, which it undertakes with private sector businesses.

The GREAT Britain campaign draws on key triggers for travel to Britain, namely culture, heritage, and countryside, alongside shopping, food, sport, adventure and music. The campaign aims to:

  • Build awareness of Britain’s attractiveness as a tourism destination among those who have not yet visited Britain,

  • Encourage prior visitors to return,

  • Provide, in partnership with the private sector, opportunities and incentives to visit Britain now.

VisitBritain also has a priority to contribute to a stronger and improved business visits and events sector. It continues to work on improving accessibility for all and providing tourism business support.

A key focus for VisitEngland for 2016 to 2020 is the Discover England Fund. VisitEngland has been provided with GBP 40 million over three years to build and grow outstanding English tourism product to drive international visits across the country.

VisitScotland launched a new marketing campaign, The Spirit of Scotland, in 2016. This global campaign promotes and celebrates the unique tourism assets of Scotland, the experience visitors’ enjoy and the tangible spirit they describe when they are in the country. The Spirit of Scotland campaign uses the power of social media, new digital platforms and technology, such as virtual reality apps, to attract visitors from around the world.

Working closely with the tourism industry, VisitScotland and the Scottish Government have devised and developed a series of themed years to keep the spotlight on Scotland as a leading tourism destination. These include: Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017; Year of Young People 2018; and a celebration of Scotland’s Coast and Water in 2020.

Building on successful delivery of the Commonwealth Games, the 2014 Ryder Cup, and Homecoming Scotland 2014, VisitScotland continues to secure, develop and support a portfolio of major events. For example, in 2018 Scotland will host the inaugural European Championships, which brings together the existing championships of seven of Europe’s leading sports into one multi-sport event, and The Solheim Cup in 2019.

The Visit Wales 2013-2020 strategy is focused on three main international markets (Ireland, Germany and United States/Canada). Its emphasis is on improving the tourism offer through supporting luxury high-end hotels, delivering iconic all weather attractions and enhancing the visitor experience at heritage attractions, museums and cultural venues to sustain their long term viability. It also seeks to build potential in business and events, an area in which Wales has historically underperformed.

In partnership with National Parks, local authorities, the National Trust Wales and Natural Resources Wales, Visit Wales is working to develop the offer around mountains, inland waters, countryside, coast, and gardens.

In terms of wider policy issues, Visit Wales is focused on skills for employment based on demand to fulfil a shortage in the sector and a need to increase the attraction of tourism as a career prospect.

Northern Ireland will see the production of an updated tourism strategy to 2025, following one of the key recommendations of the independent review of tourism structures published in 2014. The review had four key themes: setting the strategic direction for tourism; building relationships within the sector; closer alignment with Invest NI; and cultural change within Tourism Northern Ireland to develop a more customer focused approach. Events have continued to play an important role in tourism promotion.

Statistical profile

Table 1. United Kingdom: Domestic, inbound and outbound tourism


Table 2. United Kingdom: Enterprises and employment in tourism


Table 3. United Kingdom: Internal tourism consumption
Million GBP