British tourism is going through an unprecedented boom despite a pre-Brexit drop in European arrivals, new figures reveal.

Overall spending by overseas visitors is predicted to reach a record £26.6 billion in 2020, a 6.6% increase on the expected 2019 figure of £25 billion.

The number of overseas visits to the UK is forecast to rise this year to a record 39.7 million, up 2.9% on 2019.

Ambitions have been outlined to grow inbound visitor spending to £35 billion with 49 million inbound visits by 2025.

Inbound tourism visits to the UK have grown 33% and spending by 58% during the last decade.

But tourism is an extremely competitive global industry and it is important to acknowledge the challenges, according to British Tourist Authority chairman Steve Ridgway, former chief executive of Virgin Atlantic.

Growth from Europe has slowed and VisitBritain is working with the tourism industry to launch a new campaign in the spring to ensure Europeans book trips this year, as well as inform them about the “practicalities of travel” after Brexit. 

Sustainability is also a focus for the year ahead, with countries around the world grappling with the global growth in tourism and the UK no different, Ridgway admitted.

While the UK was a long way from overtourism, the tourist agency wants to help collaborate with the industry in building a resilient response to environmental and climate change pressures. 

Official figures released today show that visitors spent £951 million in the UK in the 2018-19 financial year as a result of activity by VisitBritain/VisitEngland.

Visitors spent £23 in Britain for every pound invested in the agency.

As well as the government support, the body attracted £11.5 million of investment in cash and in-kind from commercial partners and delivered £1.9 million profit from its online shop, money which is reinvested into its activities to grow the value of tourism. 

People have also been taking more holidays at home, with strong growth in short breaks.

Domestic tourism accounts for almost 80% of all tourism activity and about £72 billion is spent annually by domestic tourists in England.

This growth has been supported by the Discover England Fund started in 2015 to develop world-class tourism products that helped to bring 60 new projects and 700 products to market.

The results came today in the VisitBritain/VisitEngland annual review.

Ridgway described tourism in the UK as an “economic powerhouse” – a growth industry that attracts inward investment with potential to fire-up regional economies.

He said: “These figures are testament to Britain’s success in competing for international visitors and their spending.

“Inbound tourism today is the UK’s third largest service export, an industry that needs no trade deals to thrive and that creates jobs and drives economic growth right across the country.

“We are already competing strongly and forecasting continued growth this year from our most valuable visitor source markets such as the USA and in markets that are crucial for our future including China.” 

Ridgway said tourism also framed how people around the world saw Britain.

“If you include domestic tourism the industry is worth £127 billion, employing 3.1 million in every part of the country,” he said.

“For every 22 inbound visits from China for example, one job is created in Britain’s tourism industry. And this is an industry that attracts international investment too; 2018 saw £6.8 billion invested in British hotels outperforming the rest of Europe.” 

The industry came together during the past year and put tourism at the top of the government’s agenda with the Tourism Sector Deal, led by Ridgway.

The deal sets out plans to extend the tourism season and build business events, develop a recruitment and retention programme and build stronger tourism destinations across the country.

A landmark tourism ‘data-hub’ would be supporting businesses and destinations across the UK to better understand their domestic and international customers and to tap into new markets to drive growth.

“As we begin a new decade we look forward to working with tourism businesses and the new government to harness the energy and ambition shown by the signing of the Tourism Sector Deal, driving more investment and economic delivery from tourism right across the country and cementing the competitiveness of one of Britain’s great industries,” Ridgway said.

Tourism minister Helen Whately added: “The UK tourism industry is one of our great success stories and contributes billions to the UK economy each year.

“I’m delighted to see it growing from strength to strength. With so much to offer, exciting cultural and sporting events, outstanding historic sites and scenery and a great welcome for visitors, there’s a host of reasons why the UK continues to be one of the world’s top tourist destinations year-after-year.”