A new bank holiday should be introduced in September to help the domestic tourism industry recover from a “devastatingly hard year”.

The call came as leading attractions revealed a 66% slump throughout the UK following the outbreak of Covid-19 after a strong start to 2020 due to increased overseas tourists.

The total number of visits to the top 294 Association of Leading Visitor Attractions member sites in 2020 was 45.4 million, representing an annual decline of 70% on the 151.3 million for 2019.

The impact of the pandemic showed how vulnerable and detrimentally affected the UK’s attractions were, according to the association.

Two notable examples that would normally be among the most visited attractions were Royal Museums Greenwich, which saw a 96% decline to 111,263 visits. Edinburgh Castle, normally the most visited paid-for attraction in Scotland, suffered an 87% drop to 276,950 visits.

Alva director Bernard Donoghue said: “Our annual figures for 2020 reflect what a devastatingly hard year the attractions sector and the wider visitor economy faced.

“Tourism is the UK’s fifth biggest industry and, as these figures show, was hit first, hit hardest and will take the longest to recover.”

He added: “As we approach Easter, one of the economically important times for our members, we continue to question the government’s decision to open non-essential retail but not indoor attractions, who will also miss the May bank holiday as well.

“In the past 14 months, most of our members have been closed for every bank holiday, and therefore we continue to ask the government to introduce a new bank holiday for 2021 at the end of September to thank the NHS and key workers and help the tourism industry repair our balance sheets.

“In the budget, earlier this month, we welcomed the fact that the chancellor recognised several of our requests including an extension to the furlough scheme and keeping VAT at 5% until the end of September, and we ask him to keep an open mind on further extending that rate for as long as necessary.”

When the initial lockdown commenced all visitor attractions were closed, but by early summer the situation became far more nuanced, with outdoor sites able to reopen to the public earlier than was the case for indoor sites, according to the association.

Further restrictions often applied to individual nations or English regions rather than the entire UK, meaning that the impact of Covid-19 restrictions was “decidedly uneven”, with many members able to reopen while others were forced to remain closed.

Although many attractions are still physically closed, they have been digitally open, running innovative ‘virtual’ activities.

“When the attractions were open, they were open with much reduced capacity and the public’s feedback was that they were not only Covid-safe but the visitor experience was superb,” Donoghue said.

“This will continue when they reopen in April, May and June – so we urge you to visit them – whether they are in the city or in the country, you are likely to never see them so quiet again and be able to get so close to wonderful art, animals and performances.

“Our museums and galleries, historic houses and gardens, cathedrals and palaces, castles and zoos, safari parks and heritage sites, theme parks and churches need your support more than ever before.”