Like the rest of Europe, travel to Britain from the U.S. took a hit this past year, thanks to one of the worst global recessions in recent memory. In 2008, there was a 17% dip from 2007 in international visits to the U.K., with arrivals topping out at 32 million. The good news is that preliminary figures for the summer of 2009 show a rebound, with August coming in about 22% higher than the same month the year before.
While the numbers are encouraging, the statistics don't tell the whole story, according to Simon Bradley, VisitBritain's executive vice president for the Americas.
"The crash in our numbers happened in the third and fourth quarters of 2008, so you would expect August 2009 to look good compared to that," he said. "It's complicated, but we have been improving month on month."
More importantly, in terms of competition with other European destinations, Britain remains the No. 1 long-haul destination from the U.S., he said.
But while a slowly improving economic picture is part of the reason for the uptick, Bradley also credits efforts on the part of all segments of the industry to get international travel back on track. Airlines, tour operators and travel agents have been going all out to promote travel to Britain, with some summer airfares at record lows.
"Tour operators have been innovative in putting together last-minute bookings, and travel agents have been smart about mining customer databases," Bradley said.
VisitBritain's role in the rebound is a campaign stressing a strong value message.
"We are competing against a fairly long-term perception that Britain is at the higher end of the price bracket, and it takes awhile to chip away at that," he said.
In fact, the destination is about 20% less expensive than it was a year ago, he said, thanks to an improving exchange rate.
Come home to Scotland
Some blockbuster events during 2009 also helped spur tourism, most notably Homecoming Scotland, themed around national poet Robert Burns, whisky, ancestry and golf.
The promotion cast a wide net, encouraging visitors, be they Scottish "by ancestry or by heart," to come home, and special events commemorating Scotland's rich culture have been on tap all year.
In 2010, the Ryder Cup is expected to raise the profile of Wales as a vacation destination, especially among golfers looking to play the Ryder course before or after the competition.
Liverpool, a Capital of Culture in 2008, is benefiting from the recent release of the digitally remastered Beatles oeuvre, according to Bradley, as well as from increased flights in and out of the city's John Lennon Airport.
Manchester is also getting attention, thanks to investments in cultural and sports venues as well as in hotels and transportation. American Airlines' new route from New York to Manchester will begin operating in May, easing access for North American visitors to northern England.
A capital idea
But while secondary cities can provide great value, London also offers deals for visitors, according to VisitLondon interim CEO Sally Chatterjee.
London is less expensive than it was a year ago because of the exchange rate, she said, and the economic environment has driven hotels, especially those in the four-star category, to offer discounts.
"We encourage visitors to explore, get off the beaten track and find good value for their money," she said, adding that the VisitLondon website suggests options for all budget levels. Chatterjee highlighted the wide menu of free activities in London, for example, including most museums and art galleries.
The public transportation system can be a bargain for those who use the Oyster Card, which offers 50% savings on the cash price of subway tickets. Oyster Cards can be preordered online or on arrival.
The Christmas season in London is a draw for international tourists, with such highlights as tree lightings and decorations in the West End and at the city's top department stores.
Winter visitors will also find temporary ice-skating rinks set up throughout the city, including one next to the Tower of London and one in Kew Gardens.
City hotels get in the act with afternoon teas featuring mince pies and other seasonal treats, and the London Eye offers special flights at Christmas with mulled wine.
Olympic gear up
Looming on the horizon are the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which Chatterjee and Bradley agree will put the city's tourism into overdrive without causing undue disruption. Unlike some cities dealing with the onslaught of Olympic attention, London is accustomed to handling large events and groups of people, and most of the venues are already in place and are situated away from the typical tourist destinations in center city.
"London won't be a building site leading up to the Games, attractions won't be closing and all usual activities will be going on," Chatterjee said. "Even during the Games, it will be clear that they are going on, and visitors without tickets will be able to see the action on giant screens in the city, but regular tourists will be able to move about freely, as well," she said.
Cultural events will be on tap along with the Games, and Chatterjee predicts that only about half of the city's hotel rooms will be taken up by Olympic traffic.
For more, go to VisitBritain.com and VisitLondon.com.