General view showing the outer basin looking towards the inner dock gates. View from south.
Charlestown Harbour, Charlestown, Cornwall. © Historic England Archive
Charlestown Harbour, Charlestown, Cornwall. © Historic England Archive

The Contribution of the Heritage Sector to the Visitor Economy

Part of the Heritage Counts series. Over 10 minute read.

Heritage attracts millions of domestic and international visitors annually. From visits to specific heritage attractions, engaging in heritage activities during broader trips, to visitors exploring local historic high streets and local heritage sites. Heritage plays an important role in attracting people to place. This activity supports thousands of jobs and contributes to the national economy and to local economies.  

England’s rich heritage is a key driver of visits and tourists

Heritage is all around us. Evidence demonstrates that local heritage plays an important role attracting people to place.

  • According to the DCMS Participation Survey over 3 in 5 adults (63%) visited a heritage site in person in the last 12 months (DCMS, 2023)
  • The most popular heritage visitor sites include visits to parks/gardens with historic features (40%), followed by towns and cities with celebrated histories (39%) (DCMS, 2023)
  • Evidence from the Annual Visitor Attraction Survey shows that in 2023, 7 of the 10 most popular paid visitor attractions in England were heritage attractions, up from 6 in 2022 (Visit England, 2024). These include:
RankVisitor Attraction (paid)Visitor numbers, 2023

1

Windsor Great Park

5,487,856

2

Tower of London

2,791,834

3

Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

1,974,294

4

Chester Zoo

1,941,754

5

Westminster Abbey

1,587,866

6

St Paul's Cathedral

1,499,575

7

Windsor Castle

1,374,607

8

Stonehenge

1,327,423

9

Windermere Lake Cruises

1,319,696

10

RHS Garden Wisley

1,306,664

Historic Houses, a membership association representing 1,450 independently owned historic houses, castles, and gardens across the UK welcomed over 21 million visits in 2022. They found:

  • The visits included over 141,000 educational visits, from primary school children to U3A groups, facilitating learning about everything from history and architecture to foraging and film-making
  • In 2022, Historic Houses hosted over 26,000 cultural events, ensuring that wherever they live, people can be inspired by the UK’s vibrant creative industries (Historic Houses, 2023)

Heritage tourism is more popular in Britain, compared to other European nations:

  • 35% of UK citizens “totally agree” that the presence of cultural heritage influences their choice of holiday destinations, the fourth highest among 28 EU countries (European Commission, 2017)

Heritage motivates international tourists to visit the UK and spend in the UK economy

Tourism is one of the most important sectors in the UK economy and heritage is a significant driver of domestic and international tourism.

An extensive study that examined visitor motivations amongst international visitors found:

  • 78% of 22,840 surveyed international tourists selected ‘exploring history and heritage’ is an important driver in selecting any international destination for a break or holiday. The top drivers were that a place ‘offers good value for money’ and that ‘it is welcoming’, selected by 87% of the respondents respectively
  • When the same respondents were asked how they perceive Britain against the same list of key drivers, ‘exploring history and heritage’ was ranked first. This indicates just how strongly our national heritage is associated with Britain as a visitor destination
  • On the other hand, Britain was ranked low in terms of ‘offers good value for money’ (only 33% agree, the second lowest driver) (Visit Britain, 2023b)

Other studies also demonstrate the importance of heritage in terms of attracting overseas visitors.

  • History and heritage are strong product drivers for most overseas markets. Britain’s GREAT campaign identified heritage as one the UK’s 12 ‘unique selling points’ (Radley Yelder, 2016).

Heritage-led tourism supports the UK economy

  • Evidence from Historic Houses members shows that in 2022 members supported 32,000 UK jobs with 70% of staff employed living in the local area. Historic Houses generated an estimated £1.3 billion for the UK economy, two-thirds of which was spent locally (Historic Houses, 2023)
  • The United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO found that the UNESCO brand is an important marketing tool, boosting tourist numbers and expenditure, local employment and local house prices. UNESCO designations added £151 million per year in financial benefits to the UK economy. It also promotes educational projects and initiatives, encourages global networks and improves international reputations (UNESCO, 2020)
  • In 2015, heritage tourism supported £5.3 billion in tax receipts to the Exchequer, 0.8% of all tax collected by the central government that year. This includes £2 billion the heritage tourism sector paid directly; £2.1bn from the heritage tourism sector’s wage payments and subsequent spending of those wages; and £1.2 billion in tax receipts from the sector’s purchases. These estimates are based on the GVA and the number of people employed in the heritage tourism sector (Oxford Economics, 2016)
  • A 2015 report into screen tourism estimates that tourists visiting locations featured in film and television programs generated £140 million for the UK economy in 2014. This includes many productions filmed at heritage sites including Harry Potter, Downton Abbey and Broadchurch. The study is based on site and online surveys of 1,006 individuals in eight locations (Olsberg SPI, 2015)
  • In 2022, Historic Houses hosted over 4,100 days of filming across the country, as the setting for programmes as varied as Apple TV’s Ted Lasso, to Netflix’s Bridgeton (Historic Houses, 2023)
  • A study into heritage and the UK tourism economy, based on a random sample of 62 completed National Lottery Heritage Fund projects funded between 2004 and 2007, estimated that for every £1 spent as part of a heritage visit, 32p is spent on site and the remaining 68p is spent in local businesses including restaurants, cafés, hotels and shops (National Lottery Heritage Fund, 2010)

Estimating the contribution of heritage to the Visitor Economy for 2021

The heritage sector supports visitor-related spending through two distinct channels. The first is through domestic tourism (day and overnight), and the second is from inbound international tourists:

  • In 2021, despite COVID-19 restrictions, there were over 119 million domestic day visits to heritage, 15 million domestic overnight heritage trips and 2.74 million international heritage
  • These visits generated significant visitor spend estimated at £5.5 billion; £3.9 billion and £4 billion respectively (CEBR, 2023)

Domestic overnight trips

The GB Tourism Survey is used to estimate the volume and spend of UK heritage-driven domestic overnight tourism, covering trips taken for any purpose including holidays, business or visiting friends and family (CEBR, 2023).

  • There were over 15 million domestic heritage-related trips (overnight visits) in 2021. This compares with 1 million in 2019 indicating a robust domestic market, despite significant restrictions owing to the COVID-19, pandemic in 2021

Annual spending on domestic heritage related trips has been increasing. 

  • Domestic tourists are estimated to have spent £3.8 billion in 2021 while on domestic overnight heritage-related trips

This is higher than estimated in previous years: in 2019 and 2018 there was an estimated spend of £3.4 billion respectively. Albeit this is in part driven by methodological changes in the data collected and as these are nominal figures inflation will play a part.

Domestic day visits  

The analysis of heritage related day visits draws on Visit England’s Day Visit survey. A visit is defined as one that involves one of 15 defined leisure activities, lasts at least three hours, was not a regular activity and one that is in a destination outside the respondent’s place of residence. 

  • Total heritage-related day visits declined year-on-year from 2016 to 2019. Since 2016, the volume of visits is down by 11%, equivalent to 28 million fewer trips in 2019. However, this was still a significant increase from 2012, with all regions experiencing a growth of at least 50% during the 2012 to 2019 period
  • In 2021 (1 April to 31 December), trips fell to 119 million day visits (compared to 182 million visits in 2019), partially attributable to missing data for 1 January to 31 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposed restrictions and precautions taken

In 2021 (1 April to 31 December), the value of day visits was £5.5 billion. This is a significant increase compared to 2019 (£4.6 billion) also considering that visitor numbers were below 2019. This trend is likely due to a combination of potential reasons including:

  • Changes in the survey design for data collection in 2021
  • Improved data on the share of total tourism that is heritage related 
  • Plausibly, increased savings rates during COVID-19, and lockdowns resulted in increased average spend per excursion
  • Inflation driving up costs and prices up starting late 2021

International heritage-related tourism

The analysis draws upon the International Passenger Survey (IPS) which collects information about individuals entering and leaving the UK and is used to produce estimates of overseas travel and tourism (CEBR, 2023). 

  • Inbound heritage-related visits to the UK grew substantially over the period 2012 to 2019 with heritage led international tourism experiencing growth of 26%, equivalent to 3.7 million additional international visits in 2019
  • In 2021, the number of international trips fell to 2.7 million. An 85% drop compared to 2019. This demonstrates the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 related restrictions on international tourism, relative to domestic tourism, due to constraints on international travel
  • Heritage related international tourism spend peaked at £10.4 billion in 2019, increasing by 35% or £2.7 billion between 2012 and 2019
  • In 2021, international spend dropped to just £2.4 billion, a 77% fall since 2019 again demonstrating the extreme consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nations’ heritage sector
  • Prior to 2021, international heritage-led tourism was the largest source of heritage tourism spend in the economy. For example, in 2019, international heritage tourism spend was estimated to be £10.3 billion compared to £3.4 billion domestic overnight spend and £4.6 billion day visit spend. The recovery of international tourism is crucial to the sector

Heritage-led tourism on the pathway to recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic

Evidence on 2023 visitor numbers from the Visitor Attraction Survey demonstrates continuous recovery. Admissions to historic attractions were 11% higher in 2023 than 2022. However, visits still lag behind 2019.

  • All categories of historic attraction saw an increase in visitor numbers in 2023 when compared against 2022, with places of worship seeing the greatest uplift more than doubling their total visitors in 2022 (BVA, BDRC, 2024)
  • According to the Visitor Attraction Survey, inbound tourism continues to recover; there was a 76% increase in overseas visits to historic attractions compared to 2022. As we would expect, historic attractions in London reported the highest proportion of international visitors with over two in five visiting from overseas.  The South-West also saw above average representation of overseas visitors (28%).

The Visitor Attraction Survey also shows a recovery in revenues in 2023:

  • Historic attraction revenues increase by 10% in 2023 compared with 2022, consistent with the wider attractions market’s which also showed a 10% rise

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions’ (ALVA) visitor figures for 2022 also show growing visitor numbers:

  • Museums and Galleries reported a surge in visits (+158%) compared with 2021
  • Visits to Heritage and Cathedral sites increased by 55% (ALVA, 2023)

Similarly, information from Visit Britain shows:

  • Indoor sites enjoyed the strongest year-on-year growth with a 176% increase in visitor numbers in 2022
  • The most-visited most visited attraction overall (amongst free and paid for attractions) was the Natural History Museum (indoor site) which saw a 196% increase (2021 to 2022) in visitors to 4.7 million in 2022 (Visit Britain, 2023a)

References

  1. ALVA (2023). ALVA News ‘Visitor numbers to the UK’s most popular attractions increase by an average of 118% according to ALVA’s 2022 visitor figures.’ Available at: https://www.alva.org.uk/details.cfm?p=403&codeid=866 (Accessed: 12.10.23)
  2. BVA, BDRC (2024). Available at: ‘Visitor Attraction Trends in England 2023' (Accessed: 4.07.24)
  3. CEBR (2023). ‘The heritage sector in England and its impact on the economy: An updated report for Historic England.’ Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/content/heritage-counts/pub/2023/heritage-sector-in-england-and-its-impact-on-the-economy-2023/ (Accessed: 13.11.23)
  4. DCMS (2022) ‘Main report for the Participation Survey (April 2022 to March 2023)’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/participation-survey-2022-23-annual-publication/main-report-for-the-participation-survey-april-2022-to-march-2023 (Accessed: 26.10.23.23)
  5. European Commission (2017) ‘Special Eurobarometer 466 - Cultural Heritage’. Available at: https://data.europa.eu/data/datasets/s2150_88_1_466_eng?locale=en (Accessed: 23.09.18)
  6. Heritage Lottery Fund (2010) ‘Investing in success Heritage and the UK tourism economy.’ Available at: https://www.heritagefund.org.uk/sites/default/files/media/about_us/hlf_tourism_impact_single.pdf. (Accessed: 26.10.23)
  7. Historic Houses (2023) ‘Changing Times, Valuing History: Historic houses for the twenty-first century’. Available at: (Accessed: 26.10.23)
  8. Olsberg SPI (2015) ‘Quantifying Film and Television Tourism in England.’ Available at: https://applications.creativeengland.co.uk/assets/public/resource/140.pdf. (Accessed: 3.11.23)
  9. Oxford Economics (2016) ‘The impact of heritage tourism for the UK economy.’ Available at: https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/resource/the-impact-of-heritage-tourism-for-the-uk-economy/ (Accessed: 3.11.23)
  10. Radley, Y., (2016) ‘GREAT Britain Campaign: Creating impact for Britain around the world’. Available at: https://effectivedesign.org.uk/sites/default/files/DBA_Radley_Yeldar_GREAT_Britain_Campaign.pdf (Accessed: 23.10.23)
  11. UNESCO (2020) ‘The National Value of UNESCO Designations to the United Kingdom.’ Available at: https://unesco.org.uk/national-value/ (Accessed: 26.10.23)
  12. Visit Britain (2023a) ‘England Visitor Attractions: latest.’ Available at: https://www.visitbritain.org/research-insights/england-visitor-attractions-latest (Accessed: 26.10.23)
  13. Visit Britain (2023b) ‘Motivations, influences, decisions and sustainability research.’ Available at: https://www.visitbritain.org/research-insights/motivations-influences-decisions-and-sustainability-research (Accessed: 7.10.23)