Combined travel agency and tour operator turnover in the UK increased for a sixth successive year in 2015 to almost £32 billion.
The 12% year-on-year rise, revealed in analysis of Office for National Statistics data by Travel Weekly sister title Travolution, was the second-highest annual increase since 2008.
ONS data also showed the number of agencies surpassed 4,000 in 2015 and the number of travel agents in the UK will recover to near pre-recession levels next year. The data analysis for the 2016 Travolution Innovation Report shows there were 66,224 agents in the UK last year.
This is forecast to rise to 68,514 in 2016, about 1,000 shy of the 69,471 recorded in 2008 at the start of the downturn, and a significant improvement on the nine-year low in 2013 of 59,289.
The figures show tour operator numbers and employment fared even better than agents during the recession, weathering the downturn better and recovering earlier.
In 2008 there were 1,590 tour operators with 18,757 staff; by 2011, after two successive years of falls, there were 1,615, with 19,090 employees.
In 2015, there were 1,920 tour operators and 22,215 employees, and in 2016 that figure is forecast to top the 2,000 mark, with employees rising to 23,364.
Overall, the travel sector employed 504,006 people in the UK in 16,452 companies in 2015. The figures were seen as a cause for optimism in the trade.
Stephen D’Alfonso, Abta head of public affairs, said: “These figures are great news for agents and operators, and illustrate the important role they play in growing employment and the economy.
“They follow last week’s ONS stats that revealed a 10% rise in overseas visits from the UK in the last three months of 2015, following similar rises during the rest of last year. All these factors are a clear indication that consumer confidence is strong.”
The Travolution Innovation Report 2016 found there was a 12% increase in technology spending by the UK travel sector in 2015, spearheaded by agents and operators.
John Sullivan, head of commercial at Advantage Travel Partnership, said:
“This data reinforces the importance of technology as a driving force for change in our sector. And this is backed up by the fact that the number of agents is forecast to increase to pre‑recession levels.
“While businesses are investing in technology, they should also recognise the importance of the people within their business.”
Gemma Antrobus, Aito Agents chairman and owner of Haslemere Travel, added: “What fabulous data. It reflects my business. Since buying Haslemere Travel [in December 2015], one of the key things I am doing is working on our technology and how we can work smarter as a business.”