Overseas travel continued a downward spiral in the year to January, with numbers down by 6% or 3.2 million.

The latest Offcie for National Stastics travel data, which showed the number of visits abroad drop to under 55 million in the 12 months, prompted a warning of further woe for the outbound travel industry.

Mike Saul, head of hospitality and leisure at Barclays Corporate, said: “January is traditionally a strong month for bookings, but clearly the economic environment is, at least for now, suppressing a rebound in the outbound market.

“With soaring oil prices already triggering increased fuel surcharges on holidays and ongoing uncertainty around future oil supplies, this year has the potential to be the most expensive for UK travellers in recent memory.

“Bookings are yet to be affected significantly, but consumers unwilling to forgo a holiday are still looking very closely at value, and if surcharges continue to rise we may see a continuation of the ‘staycation’ trend evident over the last couple of years.”

However, he added: “One bright spot for outbound travellers is the forecast appreciation of sterling against both the euro and the US dollar throughout 2011, which may cushion the impact of spiralling oil prices. 

“While a stronger pound represents a challenge for inbound operators, as Britain becomes less attractive to weekend shoppers from the continent and international holidaymakers from further afield, continued economic recovery in key leisure and business tourism markets should help to underpin inward visitor numbers.”

The ONS figures showed that trips for holidays and visiting friends or relatives both dropped 6% while business travel was down by 5%.

Travel to Europe fell by 6% to 42.7 million, to North America by 4% to 3.5 million and to the rest of the world by 3% to 8.7 million.

The number of trips abroad in January 2011 was similar the same month last year, while inbound numbers were down by 2%.
“The number of inbound trips for the year to January fell by 1% or 300,000 to 29.6 million,” ONS said.

“There was no substantial rebound in the number of overseas visits in January 2011 following the sharp fall in December 2010, when bad weather caused travel disruption. The net result is a continuing fall in visits, particularly by UK residents going abroad.”