Sector’s income grew by more than five times as much as UK GDP last year. Lee Hayhurst report on the key findings in the 2018 Travolution Innovation Report

Combined travel agent and tour operator turnover in the UK grew last year by nearly 10% to £36.19 billion, according to exclusive research for Travel Weekly sister title Travolution.

Government figures, analysed in the latest annual Travolution Innovation Report, show 2017 growth was more than double the annual average of 4.8% since the 2008 economic crash.

It was the seventh successive year of growth since a 14% year-on-year contraction in 2010 when combined agent and operator turnover was £21.26 billion.

The performance of the sector compared favourably with the UK’s rise in gross domestic product, which stood at 1.8% in 2017.

CAA figures for airport terminal passengers showed a 6.7% increase in 2017 to 286.3 million, following an identical rise in 2016.

Dave Cruickshank, chief executive of Innovation Report sponsor and travel technology specialist Atcore, said there were positive signs for the sector.

“When Brexit was first announced there were a few smaller companies that put some technology decisions on hold for three to six months, but that’s all come and gone now.

“People are not citing political or economic uncertainty for investment decisions at the moment. We have not seen bookings fall off a cliff; if anything they continue to grow faster than GDP.”

Office for National Statistics data analysed in the Innovation Report also revealed a positive picture in terms of the number of companies and employees in the travel agency and tour operating sectors.

In 2017 there were more than twice as many travel agents as tour operators in the UK (4,205 versus 1,885), employing more than three times as many staff (67,666 versus 21,958).

The number of travel agents in the UK has recovered from a 10‑year low in 2013 of 59,289 to record four years of successive growth including a 10% leap in 2016.

Tour operator employee numbers have seen seven successive years of growth from a 10-year low of 18,000 in 2010.

In the travel agency sector, approaching half of all employees work for the larger companies with 1,000-plus employees. The ONS data shows there were 10 of these in 2017.

However, the sector is characterised by the number of small agencies with just 1-9 employees, of which there were 3,745 of the 4,205 total.

The ONS data for the travel agent sector includes the major vertically integrated travel firms such as Thomas Cook.

In the tour operating sector, employee numbers are more evenly spread between businesses of different sizes.

Businesses with 100-999 employees employ the most people, ahead of those with 10‑49 employees (4,078).

Projections for 2018 show an expected 3% growth in employees in the travel agent sector to just under 70,000, driven by an increase in the number of small businesses with 1-9 employees.

Overall staffing levels among all sizes of firms are forecast to increase in the tour operating sector as the number of companies increases for all but the largest 100-999 size category.

An Abta spokeswoman said: “The travel industry makes a significant contribution to the UK economy and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs.

“Despite recent economic and political uncertainties, these figures show the resilience and vibrancy of the industry. Abta’s 1,200 members alone now have a combined annual UK turnover of more than £37 billion.”

More: Travolution Innovation Report