The impact of Covid-19 on the UK tourism industry

Aaron Gates-Lincoln, writer for, investigates the impact of Covid on UK tourism and analyses the actions needed to reinvigorate the sector to pre-pandemic levels.

Whilst one is surviving through the chaotic times of a global pandemic, the tourism industry is not something that one would expect to be considered an important priority in the imminent future. However, it is becoming clear that Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact upon the industry, and that the recovery of the sector is going to be absolutely vital to the resurgence of the economy once the vaccine rollout has been achieved. 

In the past decade, the UK tourism industry has seen exponential growth, with a value forecast of reaching £257 billion by 2025. However, the limitations placed upon travel, the hospitality sector and leisure industries has meant that this value has significantly decreased. It is being estimated by VisitBritain that in 2020 the UK will have lost £37 billion from lack of tourism due to a fall in both international and domestic travel markets. Aldermore has also predicted that the sectors that it hit worst, hospitality and leisure, will have lost around 54 per cent of their monthly business income- producing devastating impacts such as permanent closures and widespread unemployment.

However, the pandemic has not only produced a shortage of visitors who allow the tourism industry to thrive. It has also brought particularly difficult changes to hospitality venues in regard to hygiene and social distancing that will be challenging to implement in the long term. Many restaurants now suffer issues with seating arrangements, with dramatic decreases in capacity sizes which can seriously hinder the profit margin of the business. Furthermore, hotels are now expected to have increased hygiene controls, and accommodations such as hostels face changes as to whether or not rooms are allowed to be shared. Hotel operations platform, Optii Solutions, has suggested that new Covid-19 cleaning protocols could cost an average 250 bed hotel an extra £100,000 per year to achieve. It is evident that even if travel manages to reach the same levels as pre-pandemic years, the efficiency and appeal of some areas of the tourism industry could still suffer from safety measures. 

Despite this, the most imminent issue is the fact that it is being predicted that travel levels will actually not reach the pre-pandemic levels any time soon. VisitBritain has projected that 2021’s overseas visit numbers will be less than half of the 40.9 million seen in 2019. Although, there is expected to be a rise to around 16.9 million inbound visits in 2021 compared to the record low of 9.7 million seen in 2020. The gradual increase in travel is, in terms of the pandemic, the safest and most sensible option forward, but it does pose further extended risks to tourism as already discussed. This is highlighted by the forecasts of low visitor spending predicted for 2021, with it being valued at around £9 billion, which is less than a third of pre-pandemic levels. 

As we have entered 2021, discussions in government and throughout the sector have begun regarding what actions are going to be taken to support the industry, and encourage safe travel to boost numbers once again. VisitBritain is set to launch a campaign across major European countries, including Germany and France, to drive future travel with the encouragement of welcome and reassuring messages. The government is currently using a ‘test to release’ for international travel – a scheme which was welcomed and led to a small boost over the 2020 Christmas period. The government has also backed a Global Travel taskforce report recommendation, which highlighted the importance of inbound tourism, including a flagship overseas marketing campaign to promote the UK as an attractive and safe place to visit. 

It is evident within the actions of the government that the image portrayed through publicising the UK as having the worst Covid death rate per million of the population has struck fear into the success of the tourism market. It could be argued that the effects of such damning data could outlast the pandemic itself, and leave the UK as appearing unsafe and undesirable as a tourist destination. Hopefully, it is this worry that will drive the government to act accordingly and radically, to ensure that such an image does not further damage the livelihoods of those in the hospitality sector.

This wish has been echoed by VisitBritain who have produced their own report of recommendations for the government. Such recommendations include the introduction of a comprehensive timeline for businesses to understand when they will be able to function at what levels. It also suggests extended furlough schemes for hospitality workers, the lifting of regulations such as rent payments for tourist industry businesses, as well as a mapped-out plan for the future of tourism. This plan would include the use of the crisis as an opportunity to drive innovation and improve productivity to boost the UK’s tourism profile. It also campaigns for the automatic extension of international visitor visas to make it easier for those who had travel postponed to resume their plans when it is safe. It has also been argued by many that the application process for UK visas should be loosened and made more accessible in the hopes that it would encourage further travel in the future. 

It is evident that without such a roadmap and additional funding, the tourism industry will see challenges long after the pandemic is considered over. As the recommendations suggested, it is also absolutely vital that the government and industry produce some radical and innovative ideas to boost the desirability of the UK to challenge the perceptions created by the government handling of the current crisis. It is only with this level of planning and support that the tourism and hospitality sectors will return and exceed their previous record high numbers. 

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