Visitor numbers at Britain’s museums, galleries, zoos, castles and country houses increased by 25% last year, but are still down 57% on pre-pandemic levels.
Unsurprisingly, figures published on Friday showed striking rises over the year at outdoor attractions. However, those that rely mainly on overseas visitors have yet to claw back pre-2019 numbers.
The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) said its sites had a total of 67.8m visits in 2021, up from 45.4m the previous year, but still significantly down on 2019’s 156.6m.
The most-visited attraction was Windsor Great Park, which drew 5.4m visitors – the first time the list was not topped by a London attraction. In second place was the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, which saw a 61% increase in visitors to 1.9m.
Chester Zoo, normally the most-visited attraction in England outside London, was in third place. Other outdoor sites in the top 20 included RHS Garden Wisley, Jeskyns community woodland in Kent, Moors Valley country park in Dorset, Longleat in Wiltshire and London Zoo.
Overall, sites that are primarily outdoors saw just 17% fewer visitors in 2021 than two years before. Mixed sites such as cathedrals recorded a decline of approximately 51%, and predominantly indoor sites such as museums and galleries saw numbers fall 73% from pre-pandemic levels.
The most-visited indoor attraction in the UK was the Natural History Museum, which was in fourth place overall with a 21% increase to 1.5m visits, while the British Museum came sixth, with a 4% increase in visitors. Tate Modern, Britain’s most visited attraction before the pandemic, fell to seventh place after a 19% fall in its annual total, though daily visitor numbers were 60% higher in 2021 than after reopening in 2020.
Somerset House, which has some cultural activities in its open-air neoclassical courtyard, bucked the trend with a 36% increase, rising two places to eighth.
Sites that provided a figure reported that just 4% of admissions in the past year were from overseas visitors.
Bernard Donoghue, director of ALVA, said the figures showed that tourism was “hit first and hit hardest” by Covid-19. “A huge spectrum of those attractions, mostly outdoors, are recovering well, but many, mostly those which are usually heavily dependent on overseas visitors, are still just surviving.”
According to Donoghue, overseas visitor numbers are not likely to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024: “For many of our most iconic attractions, this means not getting back to financial resilience four or five years after having first closed their doors.”
He called on the government to reverse its ruling that EU school and youth groups need passports rather than ID cards to travel to the UK. “This has meant that the school and youth market from the EU has suffered considerably.” He added that the decision to end tax-free shopping should also be overturned: “It is making the UK uncompetitive in the highly lucrative retail tourism market, and the reduced level of VAT for accommodation and attractions should be retained for at least the next financial year.”
Since 2020, attractions in Scotland have seen a 45% increase in visitors, while London saw the weakest year-on-year rise, with visits up just 17%, compared with 26% for other areas of England. Sites in London were closed for an average of 148 days in 2021.
The most-visited Scottish attraction was the National Museum of Scotland (in 20th place overall), followed by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
ALVA said one of the highlights of 2022 would be the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, with three special displays marking significant occasions in the queen’s reign staged at the royal residences.