As the year ends it is customary to look back, and also to look forward. 2023 has been a strong year for inbound – and it looks like VisitBritain’s forecast of 37.5 million visits (92% of the 2019 level) and £30.9 billion spend (90% of 2019 levels in real terms) looks to be bang on again, and this is a real achievement. Although there remain two downsides which are that (a) our competitors are doing better and (b) supply side challenges mean that we could have done better still.
As an association, we too continue to grow and are now fast approaching 400 members, having had a record year for recruitment. We are not just welcoming back previous members, but also attracting some great new brands across all sectors that will bring benefit to the membership – welcome all!
And the quality of our events seems to continually improve. Our Annual Convention in Belfast was the best attended on record with some fabulous speakers (I am reminded of Jamil Qureshi’s definition of success being to connect two previously unconnected networks, which is what we try and do daily for our members!), doing business, networking and learning. We look forward to announcing the host destination for UKinbound Convention 2024, taking place on 25 & 26 September, at the Annual General Meeting on 19th February.
World Travel Market in November was very successful for our partners – again the UKinbound Pavilion really is the place to be, being undoubtedly the busiest stand in the whole show. We will return to Dubai for Arabian Travel Market in May and are looking at other international shows where a UK branded presence can deliver real impact for our partners. One of the first major events in 2024 will be the joint UKinbound and ETOA Britain and Ireland Marketplace and I hope to see as many members there as possible.
The UK was regularly on the front pages of the world’s media and His Majesty the King’s Coronation, and the Eurovision Song Contest – which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2024 – held in Liverpool gave us valuable share of voice, whilst the continued use of the UK as a location for film and streaming productions allows us to leverage the growing phenomenon of set jetting.
2024 will be the Year of the Dragon – this signifies power, vigour and charm and as an Association we will be doing our best to demonstrate all these qualities! 2024 also sees the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings which will help drive US and Commonwealth visitors, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris also gives the UK the opportunity to secure business from visitors who might want all the culture of a European visit but without the crowds and sport – many will travel through the Channel Tunnel that turns 30 years old in 2024. Interestingly, and just to make you feel old, it is also the 20th anniversary of the launch of an unknown (at the time) social media platform called “The Facebook” – now with 3 billion users globally!
Our AGM in February will see the new UKinbound Board of Directors take office; a huge thank you to those who will be leaving the board when their term finishes – especially to our Chair, James Aitken, who positioned the Association so well in the years leading up to the pandemic and who helped steer us through troubled times. We look forward to the new Board and Chair taking up their positions and bringing new skills and direction to drive the Association even further.
Our lobbying continues. We had some significant success this year with the government listening to our calls to allow school and youth groups to travel on their ID cards rather than needing a passport – at the moment this just relates to France, but we hope to see the list expanded to other safe countries in due course. The economic case for the re-introduction of the VAT Retail Export Scheme has been made. We know that our competitors are successfully attracting our high spending visitors at our expense, now we just need to see the political movement to get the scheme reintroduced. Reintroducing the scheme for our long-haul visitors would help drive incremental Chinese and GCC business amongst others, whilst the introduction of tax-free shopping for European visitors would put a marketplace of 600 million on our doorstep with fantastic air links into the UK’s regions and nations, driving that oh so valuable regional spread. There are still a significant number of demand and supply side issues to fix in order for tourism to play its full role in driving economic value across the whole of the UK, be those the costs and access to visas, the skills shortage (especially language skills) and lack of available accommodation.
As the pandemic slips further into the rear view mirror, we will be adopting a positive approach to our lobbying, showing inbound tourism as the force for good that it is. Any incoming government will need to see strong and immediate economic growth, and unlike many sectors seeking to drive growth, inbound tourism can bring immediate and significant impact if we have the policies in place to help us deliver the massive export value that it’s worth. With a general election within the next 12 months, we are working to get inbound tourism onto the agenda of all political parties.
I was also thrilled that we signed up to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action earlier this year and launched our Sustainability Action Plan – whilst we are only a small organisation and our carbon footprint is relatively low, all organisations involved in inbound tourism must start to align around sustainable travel. No one expects perfection but every journey starts with a first step, so take it!
As an eventful 2023 bows out and we look forward to 2024, I would like to thank you, the members, for your support and dedication this year. A huge thank you goes to the Board for their counsel and direction; and last but not least, to my wonderful team for their passion, expertise, and tireless commitment to delivering the very best outcomes for our members.
So to end, and having already referenced some anniversaries, one of particular note in 2024 will be the 165th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species”. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t say that only the fittest would survive, but that those with the greatest ability to adapt would be the winners; so how we adapt to changes in governments, consumer behaviours and needs, and the fragile world we live in will be absolutely key in you making 2024 the success it can be.
On behalf of myself and the UKinbound team, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2024.