Paid attractions lag behind free sites as cost-of-living crisis bites

Tourist attractions with entrance fees are struggling to increase visitor numbers at the same rate as those with free admission due to the cost-of-living crisis, new research shows.

Total visits to top free attractions increased by 92%, from 34.6 million in 2021 to 66.2 million last year, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania news agency of data published by the trade body Association. of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva).

That compares with just a 46% increase from 37.9 million to 54 million for attractions with general admission charges.

Chart showing the number of visitors to UK attractions
(PA charts)

Figures refer to 336 UK visitor attractions open in 2021 and 2022.

Paid attractions that saw visitor numbers fall short of the average increase for free sites included Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, West London (no change), RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey (up 6%), ZSL London Zoo, north. West London (up 51%), Longleat, Wiltshire (up 16%) and Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (up 35%).

Alva director Bernard Donoghue told the PA news agency: “We’ve seen the cost of living crisis really have an impact on visitor numbers from August last year onwards.

“The British public are making tactical decisions about how they spend their pounds and leisure hours.

“As a consequence, we’ve seen those free visitor attractions perform particularly well.”

The UK’s nine most popular attractions in 2022 were either free or only charged for exhibits and special events.

Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, had the most visits with 5.6 million, up 4% from 2021.

Visitors to Windsor Great Park walk the Long Walk towards Windsor Castle
Windsor Great Park was the UK’s most popular tourist attraction last year (PA)

It was followed by the Natural History Museum, west London, with 4.7 million visits, almost three times the previous year.

Strikes by London Underground and railway workers limited the number of people visiting theatres.

Donoghue said: “That had a particular impact at Christmas, where many Christmas shows and pantos were affected by the series of strikes over the winter period.”

Every day of a strike on the train or tube costs London theaters an average of £42,000 due to lost revenue and the cost of providing transport and accommodation for cast and crew members, it added.

Donoghue said membership of museums, galleries and zoos “remained quite strong” in the past year, showing that many people are “prioritizing day visits over things like TV subscriptions.”

Overall visits to all Alva attractions in 2022 were up 69% compared to the previous year, partly due to the end of the UK’s coronavirus travel rules.

But total visits remained 23% below the year before the 2019 pandemic.

Donoghue expects demand for attractions to continue to rise this year, partly due to the return of visitors from China.

“Recently they have been allowed to travel abroad,” he said.

“When the Chinese market returns, as I confidently predict it will this year, I think we will see very, very strong growth.

“The main attractions for Chinese visitors are the Roman Baths in Bath (Somerset), Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle and Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Warwickshire).”


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