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.
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.