Dearth of 'high-spending' foreign visitors frustrates travel bosses

European tourism association says boom in domestic travel is not enough to compensate

A woman walks past a souvenir shop for tourists in London. Foreign travel has been hit hard by the pandemic. AP

A boom in domestic travel during the coronavirus pandemic is not enough to prop up tourism because of a lack of “high-spending visitors”, an industry leader has said.

Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tourism Association (Etoa), said Europe’s city centres relied on wealthy foreign visitors who only started to return towards the end of 2021.

It comes with city centres facing the separate challenge of adapting to emptier offices, as working from home becomes a habit.

Airlines have told of having fewer business customers and mainly filling seats in economy class during the pandemic, while high spenders instead put their money into luxury Rolls-Royce cars.

With the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant adding further uncertainty to travel, Mr Jenkins said ever-changing border protocols were holding up the recovery of international tourism.

“Domestic demand does not provide the high-spending visitor that Europe’s city centres require,” he wrote in a foreword to an annual review by Etoa.

“It is welcome, but it is not enough to sustain sectors that depend on visitor demand to complement local consumption.”

Jennifer Tombaugh, the association’s chairwoman, said domestic travel “simply could not offset the loss from international travellers”.

International travellers, seen here at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, have faced a series of often-changing restrictions linked to Covid-19. AFP

Figures released by London’s Heathrow Airport this week showed domestic travel bucking the trend with a 21.1 per cent increase in passengers from 2020 to 2021. Traffic dropped to and from Asia, North America and mainland Europe.

The airport suffered 600,000 people cancelling their travel plans in December as Omicron took hold. Britain tightened restrictions last month but recently returned to the looser measures of the autumn.

Some airlines have been forced to run empty flights in Europe to keep take-off and landing slots at airports.

“Entry requirements and travel protocols changed too often and too late,” damaging the summer tourism season in Europe, Ms Tombaugh said.

Visit Britain, the UK’s tourism board, predicts that foreign visitors in 2022 will provide only 67 per cent of the spending recorded before the pandemic.

Overseas visitors spent £24.8 billion ($33.7bn) on trips to Britain in 2019, making more than 36 million separate visits.

People living in Britain spent a smaller total of £19.5 billion on overnight stays, although they splashed out much more than this on day trips.

The tourist industry in the UK has faced further difficulties from Brexit, with hotels struggling to recruit staff and coach companies searching for drivers, although this is partly down to the pandemic, said Mr Jenkins.

Updated: January 11th 2022, 12:23 PM