The global initiative to drive inbound tourism to the UK, after the sector was hammered by the fallout from the pandemic, comes as the country gears up for a year of big events including Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee celebrations and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
The launch event, hosted by Visit Britain, came before UK National Day at Dubai Expo 2020 which is set to be held on Thursday and attended by Britain's Prince William in his first official trip to the Emirates.
The UK pavilion day is to feature the queen’s baton relay, which will take in the UAE before visiting 72 nations, with the baton arriving in Birmingham for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on July 28. The UAE is not in the Commonwealth but the torch will visit the stands of member nations assembled at Expo.
"We're going to have quite a line-up," said Dame Judith Macgregor, chairwoman of the British Tourist Authority. Ms Macgregor was British High Commissioner to South Africa from September 2013 until March 2017 before taking on the interim role at the helm of board.
She said the choice of the Expo 2020 Dubai site as a location to unveil the promotional campaign “was not a coincidence” because of the close trading and tourism relationship between Britain and the Emirates.
The UAE is a key market for Britain's expanding trade ambitions, as the UK aims to double the number of businesses exporting goods and services across the globe and cement a trade deal with the wider GCC region.
The British government's plan to export £1 trillion ($1.358tn) worth of goods and services a year by 2030, a significant increase on the £600bn exported in 2020 – with the Emirates and wider GCC region a vital part of that target.
“The GCC is a really important market for us. It's a really big trading partner, for the UK and it's our second biggest tourism market after the US,” Ms Macgregor told The National.
Quoting 2019 figures, before the Covid-19 pandemic hammered the travel industry, Ms Macgregor said about 1.2 million visitors generated £2.6bn worth of value to the UK with about half of the visitors coming from the Emirates.
“It's a valued, long-standing tourism economy partner. So it's a natural place to actually make a launch of this campaign,” Ms Macgregor added.
Marketing front VisitBritain is pioneering a ‘Welcome to Another Side of Britain’ campaign, which aims to present global Britain on the world stage and act as a driving force for international tourism, trade and investment.
It comes as the country looks to promote itself as one of the strongest and most open economies in Europe, as testing and quarantine restrictions end for fully vaccinated visitors from Friday.
The tourism campaign will highlight major British events this year, set to be global visitor draws, especially the queen’s platinum jubilee, the Commonwealth Games and ‘Unboxed’, a UK-wide celebration of creativity.
Nadine Dorries, UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who attended the Wednesday launch event in Dubai along with leading tourism industry and travel trade executives, said the campaign “will highlight the best of the UK to the world and show that we are open and ready to welcome back international visitors”.
The promotion of the UK’s “blockbuster year of sport and cultural events” supports the wider programme for UK National Day at Expo 2020 Dubai, which will feature new and diverse music, theatre, arts, poetry, comedy, film, food and innovation across the whole Expo 2020 site.
“The royal family have always been associated with the Commonwealth and it's something I know the Queen – from personally talking to her about it when I went out to South Africa as high commissioner – takes incredibly seriously and absolutely wants to support in every way she can," Ms Macgregor said.
The wider tourism campaign also aims to shine a spotlight on Britain’s own cities, hit hard by the absence of international visitors, in a move designed to comply with the UK government’s levelling up campaign to ensure every part of the country can benefit from government funding.
The ‘Culture and Sport in the Global Economy’ event on Wednesday, for example, is hosted by the West Midlands Growth Company as part of a series of events across the Emirates for Birmingham 2022’s Business and Tourism programme – a £24m central and local government investment into the West Midlands – to demonstrate the scale of the economic opportunity available in the Games’ host city and long-term capital investment potential of the region.
While 40 million international visitors headed to the UK in 2019, that figure dropped to 7 million in 2020 when the world descended into lockdown at the start of the pandemic.
While the UK domestic market grew in 2021 as many people in Britain chose holidays at home due to complicated travel restrictions, the number of overseas visitors was still down.
This has led to pent-up demand for the UK, Ms Macgregor said, with 86 per cent of UAE respondents surveyed by VisitBritain saying they intend to travel internationally for leisure in the next 12 months, and 85 per cent from Saudi Arabia.
The UK wants more visitors and the removal of the rule this Friday that fully vaccinated travellers must take a PCR test before arriving should be a turning point.
“We still see it taking a year or so for demand to return,” she said.
“Provided everything is smooth running in terms of Covid infection, the market will build up but if there are more infections or restriction, then obviously that does make things more difficult.”
While London is still the primary focus for GCC leisure travellers, some tourists do travel outside the capital, said Ms Macgregor, to destinations such as the popular outlet retail park Bicester Village in Oxfordshire where tourists can pick up bargains on designer goods and explore cultural sites nearby.
“We value GCC visitors, because as a general rule, they come more frequently to us and they're very likely to be repeat visitors – much higher than our average visitors,” she said.
“They also tend to stay longer than our average visitors.”
High-spending tourists will be welcomed by the UK's hospitality sector, which has been "severely affected during the last two years", Ms Macgregor said.
"The travel and tourism industries are beginning to operate more normally but I wouldn't want to pretend that the situation is back to normal by any means," she said.
"I think we've all learnt to take one step at a time."
With business travel spending worldwide also expected to jump more than 37 per cent this year to more than $1trn, the Global Business Travel Association says, analysts expect a surge in business travellers from the Gulf in addition to the tourists that normally arrived from the region.
However, the normally lucrative industry will not fully recover until 2024, the GBTA said.
Alex Woodleigh Smith, managing director of property consultancy AWS Prime, said there is “a definite feeling” that there will be more normality in terms of travel this year.
“Realistically, it’s probably going to be from Q2 onwards; we anticipate that just before Eid in early May, we’ll see the more typical GGC-based clients head over to the capital to enjoy springtime in London,” he said.