Why UK tourism is still all about London

London Eye a little after sunset

London Eye a little after sunset

Last night I co-hosted the weekly Travellers’ Night In (TNI) event on Twitter. It’s basically a couple of hours of chatter with several hundred people around 10 timed questions on a particular theme. This week it was all about the UK. While the audience is international it is fair to say that the majority of those taking part are from the US. So it was a very good exercise in gauging the perception of the UK by potential visitors to the country.

One of the most striking observations (though hardly shocking) was the overwhelming focus on London. Many people shared their previous experiences of the UK, and of course most were centred on the capital. Others wrote about the places they would love to see again and the answers were London-centric (with Edinburgh coming a clear second).

Is this significant? It certainly is for regional tourist boards. They are fighting a constant uphill battle to attract visitors to explore the UK beyond London. Ask an average American or Japanese person to list five things they would like to see in Britain and the chances are that all five will be in London. And if these visitors have a very limited time in the country (just look at average holiday allowances for US or Japanese workers) they are as likely to hop on the Eurostar to visit Paris as they are to head up to Leeds or Manchester.

Arriving at a country pub in time for dinner

Arriving at a country pub in time for dinner

Can regional tourist boards do much about this? I suspect they will always be swimming against the current when it comes to visitors from beyond Europe. The majority of long-haul visitors will inevitably want to base themselves in London, with only those on extended breaks taking the chance to venture beyond the main Stratford-Bath-Stonehenge-Oxford-Cambridge circuit (add in the Edinburgh-Inverness-Loch Ness route for those making Scottish trips). Of course some visitors do break away from these hotspots and find the unsung magic of the UK, but those numbers are always low in comparison to the overall UK visitor numbers.

Does the real opportunity come from low-cost airlines that are able to bring European visitors directly to the regional airports? If we can fly to Bratislava on the cheap for an easy weekend break from many UK airports, what’s stopping people flying the other way to Leeds, Cardiff or Newcastle to do the same? Having lived in many UK cities over the last 20 years I’ve seen just how much there is on offer to the visitor in any part of the country.

I often wonder why those Easyjet and Ryanair flights seem to be packed with Brits, while few Germans, Croats, Spaniards or Estonians make the return journey. Is the UK so expensive? It certainly gets cheaper as you venture outside of the tourist spots of London. Is it our weather? As any Brit will testify there are occasions when we’d all like to escape; but we also enjoy far more good weather than our reputation suggests. As an amateur observer it appears to me that there is still a lot of work to be done by UK tourism officials in promoting the diversity of our country to the European traveller.

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26 Responses to “Why UK tourism is still all about London”

  1. Well …the following question on #TNI was pretty telling:

    “Q4.Tube, Train,Taxi, how do you get around the UK?”

    October 8, 2010 at 10:21 am
  2. It is an interesting topic. There is arguably a case to be made that many of the UK cities hold less appeal as a city break than their continental brethren – and to be honest I’m not even sure if other nationalities go in for the city break in the same way as us Brits and Irish?

    Definitely agree that there is a whole world of lovely scenery, charming inns, great walking and of course the superb National Trust that seem to get far less attention than they deserve from inbound tourists.

    October 8, 2010 at 10:29 am
  3. James Craven #

    501 Places:

    London has so much to offer and is so damn appealing that it is hard to leave and venture out once you’ve gotten there. I believe UK tourism should try and pitch “travel outside of London” to those who have already traveled frequently to London. Reed Exhibitions should be able to provide a database of frequent WTM visitors that would be a prime target to pitch “more than London” travel offers to. I’ve been to London on business many times and just wish I had more time to enjoy London…
    Cheers,

    @CravenTravels

    October 8, 2010 at 1:03 pm
  4. Hey, I tried! :) I threw some Hadrian’s Wall, Dover and Yorkshire Dales action in there…I love me some London, after all, but it’s never stopped me from wanting to widen the hug to include ALL of England.

    Give me a little time — I’ll try to sway some minds to our way of thinking!

    October 8, 2010 at 4:29 pm
  5. Abi #

    And I threw in St Albans, Woking and Cardiff! Surely that should earn some bonus points…

    October 8, 2010 at 5:02 pm
  6. Thanks for the great comments and for the support in bigging up the rest of the UK (Melanie it’s good of you to do it even with your London hat on!). Abi I had the same thought when I saw Q4 – and was surprised no-one picked up on it during the chat.

    Ben, I think you have a good point about the UK appetite for city breaks. Do the French/ Spanish have the same desire to hop on a plane for a few days to visit another city? I don’t know. But I do think that a weekend in most UK cities would offer a whole range of attractions and activities.
    James, London has got so much to offer as you say. I’m only slowing learning just how much having lived in the SE for four years. It’s just a shame to see the rest of England in particular being neglected by tourists as a result.
    Thanks again to all.

    October 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm
  7. Must say I disagree with quite a bit of what’s been said here. The point about the UK is that it has a much more developed market in general for travel than many other countries in Europe. Due, chiefly, to the British media and its insatiable travel marketing machinery, it seems to me that Brits know far more about travel destinations (in Europe and beyond) than other nationalities tend to about Britain. That, I think, is why those Ryanair flights are busier on the outbound than the return. My guess is nobody’s bothered to tell Croats, Portuguese or Bulgarians what Cardiff, Nottingham or Newcastle (and their rural hinterlands) have to offer, or what they might get out of a trip there.

    That also speaks volumes about how Britain is both perceived and marketed abroad. To dwell on the UK’s city-break potential is to miss the point – the real value in British tourism is rural. That’s not really a surprise, when you think about our neighbours: is Toulouse more of a draw than Bordeaux or the Dordogne? Nope. Do people fly to Zurich for Zurich, or for the Alps? British cities have their unique aspects – but, let’s face it, what really makes the UK unique is its countryside. And the Cotswolds in particular are hugely popular with UK and non-UK tourists – Japanese, Korean, Chinese, American, but also Dutch, German, Belgian and others.

    The travel industry – and, to widen the net, social media – is dominated by urban thinking. People who live in cities (perhaps in the US too) imagine UK tourism is all about London. That’s plain wrong.

    October 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm
    • Thought I’d add to Matthew’s comment. All of his points are valid, but I’d like to add that if you live on the mainland of Europe travelling to other countries is so easy. Why would the French, Belgians, Germans etc subject themselves to the degrading experience of a cheap flight, when they could be in very different place by just driving, or taking the bus or train for 2 hours? Of course if you add transport to the airport, check in, perhaps baggage retrieval and transport from the airport you are closer to 4 hours.

      February 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm
  8. Thanks Matthew. As you say the UK does seem to have the most developed outbound tourist market with a long established demand for the quick and cheap getaway (it was there before Ryanair and Easyjet came along). This would explain the dominance of Brits on the low cost weekend break flights.
    My point on everything being about London was an observation based on last night’s online chatter and the general content I see on travel blogs, but you’re spot on – the vast majority of these opinions and stories come from urban folk (myself included). There is clearly a healthy rural tourist sector (holidays this year in the Hebrides and Yorkshire have shown us locally thriving businesses and I see the same on my our regular trips to the SE’s rural spots), but the numbers are still small relative to the London/Edinburgh visitors, and so the online world paints a very lop-sided picture as you suggest.
    I wonder how rural tourism businesses feel about the nationally coordinated efforts (Visit Britain, Visit England, etc) – do they feel that these bodies are championing their causes adequately or do they feel there is that same urban bias? I have no idea but would be interested to know.

    October 8, 2010 at 8:10 pm
  9. Annick #

    I am a French girl living in London. There is also one thing that may prevent overseas visitors to go much further than London : transports. Trains are awfully expensive and the bus is too long when you have a short time. Plus some rural destinations are difficult to visit if you don’t have a car.

    October 9, 2010 at 12:22 am
  10. Good discussion Andy. I suppose the main tourist belt (excusing Edinburgh, Nessieland and Burns Country) centres around the SE.
    Perhaps more could be done by regional tourist boards to promote places using culture and history as the main attraction. VisitScotland does this well with it’s geneaology tourism for example. They do a fair bit of intl marketing too, segmented by various visitor profiles (oh God how I do not miss working in marketing!) England could learn a bit from them certainly.
    Matthew’s right about the rural aspect also, the West Country, Lake District, the Dales, we’re spoilt for choice. But it is a relatively small country. How many people from the UK thinking of visiting Budapest will also consider taking in Pecs or Debrecen while they’re at it?

    October 9, 2010 at 1:18 pm
  11. Very interesting conversation. I have just added a post last night to my blog about this topic. My view is that holidays in the UK are pretty expensive compared with other countries. Most hotels will change between £80 and £120 per night which I think is a lot of money particularly if you are travelling from abroad. As Annick said, transport is extremely expensive in England. So unless travel companies offer “value for money” packages (flight, car hire and accommodation), attracting foreign tourists will be difficult. I also agree with the fact that London is very well publicised but there is still limited publicity about other areas of England. I am French and have been living in London for 16 years. I still know very little about the rest of England apart from the most popular places such as Cornwall, Devon, Cotswolds, Lake District and Peak District. I definitely think that more could be done to develop tourism to these places focusing on culture, green spaces, natural beauty spots, locally produced food etc…. French people love visiting Scotland and Ireland for example. But they don’t know about the beautiful places in England.

    October 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm
  12. I’ll apologise now for hijacking that #tni chat a little. I logged on Twitter and saw Visit Britain promoting err London, and many others were promoting only err London. The UK consists of many other cities you know!!!!! I was ranty, and felt I was justified.

    I am sick to the back teeth of Visit Britain and other tourism boards promoting London to the US. When I saw that VB were promoting Britain on sites like Travelmuse I thought that was good, until I saw the content – guess which city is 99%. Yep, you’ve guessed it London!!!!!!!!

    October 9, 2010 at 4:45 pm
  13. OK. A flip side… Let’s look at the UK from a US/ Japanese/ Australian perspective. Why would we choose to come to the UK over anywhere else in the world?

    Think about it carefully, and the main drawcards are going to be the history and the renowned vibrancy of London. If we want countryside, then we’ve got lovely countryside in our own back yards.

    Are the likes of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Nottingham really that fascinating on a global level? Probably not. I know if I lived in New York, then Boston or Washington would make for a far more interesting break than Glasgow or Cardiff. London is the one destination in the UK that people will come all that way for (with Edinburgh perhaps coming second).

    I like the Peak District, I like the Yorkshire Dales, I like the Lake District etc etc. But I’m also honest enough to admit that most countries have their perfectly good own versions of such destinations.

    The way the UK can get people to other destinations is through stories and history. They will come to Nottinghamshire if they’re particularly interested in Robin Hood, Liverpool if they’re interested in the Beatles and the south-west if they’re interested in King Arthur. Fortunately, the UK is blessed with many, many stories. And if we can use them as the bait, then we can pull people in to nearby attractions and areas that might not be as immediately obvious.

    October 9, 2010 at 5:02 pm
  14. Interesting topic. But I don’t think this problem is UK-centric, I’m sure it’s actually happening to every country that has a major tourist city (maybe except France, but being the first destination worldwide, let’s not take that into account).

    Think of Germany – most people will visit Berlin. Take the USA – most people will visit NYC. Take Brasil – most people will visit Rio de Janeiro.

    Indeed, regional and cheap airlines are a great way to discover hidden gems in countries where the capital is pretty much the only tourist attraction. But most of the publicity around cheap airlines revolves around the easy access to big cities – maybe they should switch and underline the fact thay they fly to smaller destinations like Cork, Ireland or even Wroclaw.

    October 9, 2010 at 5:44 pm
  15. Marco #

    The topic is very complex and needs a research and a book to be explained and to plan something to organize really the ideas. So what we can give is just some very superficial and individual, lone, points of view about this.

    I think that between all the posts David Whitley post, posted on october 9th is the most simple and direct. It is exactly like that I believe people can be attracted.
    You need to sell the idea, the movie that the tourist makes in his own head when he thinks to go somewhere. (that is how for example many people get fooled by bad tour operators or internet holidays that show paradise and when you get there the movie that you created in your mind was completely over assessing and over extimating the venue you were going to)…

    So for example, if I would say “Every road leads to London” the thing is: we should travel and discover those roads too.
    What about SAS special forces training places (in Hereford and the various tracks where these SF train), what about cotteges, horseriding and medival age, what about pubs and distilleries.What about instead all the fairytales all the magic (which I am interested in) related stories and people that are from and live and lived in england. England is the motherland of “witches” and much more, and many things are still very strong there also because of the main carachteristic of england. England is an Island.

    And many many more IMAGES\IDEAS (to sell). What about cycling?

    England has bad weather, it means, it has a colder weather, that does not allow you to do a lot around (it’s not like Sweden or Iceland but should be compared to those kind of places). A must is creating a diagram Weaknesses and Strenghts as anyone of you knows is good to do. Surely from many points of view weather is a weakness.

    What about the British Pound? It is expensive as somebody mentioned. So people where like to spend? If they spend they want to spend secure and safe. Just a niche would try to adventure and try new routes, or if not just one niche more the once niche but still will be niche. Of course more niche make “a majority” so I think UK can work on this problem and change the trend if they really want this. But they want this? I think that the LONDON appeal makes the thing easy and UK have found a balance and a good way to attract turist fluxes.
    Many people are young and they go to the english colleges in summer, for those 15 \ 1 month stays for learning the language. (I did it 3 times when I was younger).

    There are anyway vantage points from this status: England stais intact and clean from tourism, from pollution because the influence of this would certainly bring some changes to Nature, people life … It’s important I believe the sustainability of tourism. If with London and other few cities england has found a good balance why breaking it?

    I hope I gave a good point. but sorry for writing a too long post.

    October 10, 2010 at 1:19 am
  16. Hi,

    Before I get to it, Marco: “England has bad weather, it means, it has a colder weather, that does not allow you to do a lot around (it’s not like Sweden or Iceland but should be compared to those kind of places.”

    This is perhaps ‘the’ limiting stereotype that hampers foreign perceptions of this country. As a cyclist I know exactly how many wet/ cold days we have that could possibly limit cyclo-tourism, and I’m sorry to say you’re wrong.

    Back to the plot:

    Imagine your first visit to France (as an international tourist having paid several hundred pounds), I would suggest you’d head to Paris. Now here’s the hook – instead of fighting a pointless either/ or battle for business, we need to accept that London will always be the magnet, then develop out so that regions are promoted alongside.

    Improve the logical connections – if we can’t affect the transport connections – and get tourists traveling for a few hours on a train. Annick – come on, if you want to get anywhere you have to travel, just book in advance online and there are some outrageous rail savings to be had.

    Hotels are all in competition, so let’s get them working together: It becomes a package deal, with two destinations, two hotels, the power of double marketing; and the city and the shires stop crossing wires and get filling rooms!

    I write for a hotel in Brighton, 50m from the beach, it’s 20c and the town is alive! If I’ve sparked any further ideas/ suggestions, I’d be happy to continue this.

    Best wishes to all!

    Mp

    October 12, 2010 at 10:42 am
  17. I’ m Spanish and I’ve travelled to UK many times, in fact I’ve lived in London.
    I simply adore the country, from the misty and foggy days to the misterious castles or neverending green fields.
    As others have said, London have great offer to visit but if one is curious UK, which also have good connections by train, bus and planes, offer a wide range of special places to visit which I guess are not well promoted. Why? That’s the question
    I Love UK
    Arantxa

    October 12, 2010 at 11:00 am
  18. Kymri #

    For what it’s worth (from an American), my response to Q4 was “train”, and I DID comment that I never knew the Tube extended beyond London! Back in the days of Britrail passes, visitors could get around all of Britain and that was the BEST way to see the UK, and the best deal. Once the rails became privatized it simply got too expensive for visitors to get beyond London, which is a real shame. Now it requires renting a car to really have freedom, and unfortunately many visitors to UK are intimidated with having to drive on the opposite side of the road. To be fair, it goes both ways. I meet so many Brits who “love America” yet have only been to NYC or Las Vegas!

    October 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm
  19. Whenever I have .talked to or exchanged correspondence with people who have visited the UK. I have never received the comment. “You live in the UK, I you’re so lucky. London is so accessible to you”. However I have often received comments such as “I fell in love with the Wye Valley, I envy your closeness to it” or “You are so lucky living in North Wales, I visited once. It was wonderful”.
    When I was a teenager I always wanted to visit New York City. When I finally got there, I found it did not live up to my expectations. However, I really liked Boston and New England, especially Vermont.
    It is all very well blaming tourist boards for not promoting Rural Britain and the North, but what about all of the travel blogs? This blog is an exception in that it is one of the ones that doesn’t home in on the well known destinations. Many others though, concentrate largely on the big cities.
    The one lesson I would take from the #TNI #LoveUK debate, is that there is more to a country than the obvious tourist traps. How can anyone complain if they feel that their locality is not visited by tourists, if they don’t make the effort to get far away from the main airports when they travel?

    October 12, 2010 at 1:42 pm
  20. Hi Andy – Full disclaimer here: I work for VisitBritain and was involved in the UK themed #tni. I wanted to chime in.

    This is a great post and I want to say that you and many folks who commented absolutely hit the nail on the head: the overwhelming majority of travelers don’t travel outside London enough! The Welsh Coast & Mountains, Scottish Culture, Devon, Cornwall, Lakes and Lochs, pubs and castles, theatre, art & music across Britain…where do we stop – there’s so much for every interest.

    Whenever VisitBritain promotes the UK we always include destinations in England, Scotland, and Wales, in addition to London. If you follow @visitbritain, you’d see that we called out to followers before #TNI to share their wider England, Scotland and Wales experiences specifically – and many did. We also commented on and retweeted tons of discussions on non-London destinations in the UK. On travelmuse, we helped them develop 12 itineraries which included Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton, Warwick, the Jurassic Coast, and Edinburgh, in addition to London.

    I’m going to be honest – in a world of finite resources where our cities are competing for visitors with Hong Kong, Tulum, and Sydney – it’s a definite challenge to get Britain’s entire offering well-known. We do things like sponsor #tni, stimulate conversation on our Love UK Facebook page, and send bloggers on press trips because we feel that accounts like yours, and those of writers, locals, and visitors – all who have that sense of adventure and appreciation of the richness of the entire UK – make a difference in inspiring people to go to London and beyond .

    That is of course – until Oprah decides to take her next studio audience to Yorkshire for the weekend (and trust me, we’ll pitch it to her ;)

    October 14, 2010 at 9:55 pm
  21. Hi Andy

    Certainly noted the question on #TNI about the Tube!?

    I think the UK has so much to offer and it is indeed cheaper generally outside of London.

    An example being the cost of a hotel in London next month would cost me £100+ a night. Yet a train journey to Heathrow and the same chain, same room is £39 a night!

    London is great and so appealing to those that have never been. In much the same way New York appeals to me. Yet I think I’d also like the Catskills, just as Americans may well like the Lake District.

    October 15, 2010 at 10:51 am
  22. Great post and subsequent discussion. This has long been a bugbear of mine and I think VisitBritain has plenty of answer for. Years ago, you would visit their homepage and almost everything on the page was London-oriented or, at best, very heavily skewed to the south and south-east. To be fair, I think they’ve got better in that regard and do promote Britain as a whole more, but I still find it’s invariably London-heavy. But perhaps that reflects the demand.

    As an owner of a luxury self-catering property in a beautiful area (the town of Kendal between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales), we have attracted some overseas tourists but by far the majority of visitors milling about the town are from the UK.Maybe that’s a good thing… we don’t want TOO many people to know what a lovely area this is. ;-)

    Paul

    PS – To Sandy above… £80-£120 a night for a room isn’t all that out of kilter with many other European countries, and don’t forget there are much cheaper deals depending on the location, quality of the hotel and the offer you get. Where you can really save is by self-catering. Our place, for instance, is currently £270 for a 4-night break (Monday-Friday). It sleeps 4, so that works out as as little as £16.88 per person per night. And that’s at the luxury end of the market. There’s far cheaper at the other end of the spectrum.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm
  23. I think London is always going to be the most appealing place for foreign travellers. It’s the biggest city and probably the most famous city in the world.

    On the other hand, for UK tourists (probably even Londoners), the South West and other places are popular. My local area (Devon) gets a lot of visitors from the North. Perhaps even more so due to the recession and flights going up.

    February 14, 2011 at 10:56 am
  24. I think any tourist to the UK would like to see London just to say that they’ve been there. There’s lots of other historically rich and vibrant places in the UK. Rather spending the whole of a holiday in the capital, they should book a hotel in Cambridge or Devon, where the pace is a little more relaxed.

    February 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

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