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UK will see a resurgence in Gulf travellers this summer

Buckingham Palace is one of the many tourist attractions appealing to Arab visitors Creative Commons
Buckingham Palace is one of the many tourist attractions appealing to Arab visitors

The UK has historically been a favoured tourism spot for Gulf Arabs but the global pandemic brought international travel to a grinding halt. 

As the world reopens its shutters, however, GCC tourists’ appetite for Britain is experiencing a strong renaissance, according to industry experts.

On March 18 all remaining Covid-19 international travel restrictions were lifted for passengers arriving into the UK. 

Flight bookings from the Middle East rose to more than 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the week commencing May 9 according to national tourism agency Visit Britain, indicating strong recovery across the spring and summer months ahead. 

The agency’s latest international travel consumer sentiment survey, published in March, showed that a respective 86 and 84 percent of respondents surveyed from the UAE and Saudi Arabia are intending to travel internationally for leisure purposes in the next 12 months.

“We are expecting an influx of GCC tourists into the UK this summer,” Ufuk Secgin, chief marketing officer at HalalBooking, told AGBI. 

“This influx will most likely gather pace after Eid Al Adha, which takes place in the second week of July.

“We’re expecting to see increased numbers of GCC nationals travelling to the UK in the second half of July and in the month of August.” 

Prior to the pandemic the GCC ranked as the second most valuable inbound tourism market for the UK, after the US. There were 1.2 million GCC visitors in 2019, with Gulf tourism expenditure reaching £2.6 billion.

Gulf tourists also stay longer in the UK compared to the all-market visitor average. Data from Visit Britain shows they typically stay for 12 nights compared to the global average of seven nights.

A Gulf tourist also spends £2,151 per trip to the UK, more than three times the all-market average. 

However, the UK government’s abolition in January 2021 of the VAT Retail Export Scheme, which allowed tax-free shopping in the UK for non-EU citizens, has had a noticeable negative impact. 

When the UK was still part of the EU visitors from outside the bloc had been able to claim a VAT refund on most shopping receipts, but the rule was scrapped after Brexit came into force. 

That makes the UK the only European country not offering tax-free shopping to visitors from outside the EU.

Research carried out by the UK’s Association of International Retail prior to the abolition of tax-free shopping shows that travellers from China and the GCC comprised 4 percent of visitors to the UK but made around 60 percent of tax-free purchases and therefore had an outsized impact on the tourism trade. 

In March this year Global Blue, the tax-free shopping refund agency, compared the shopping habits of Gulf state tourists in the EU in 2019 with their spending behaviour last year. 

The numbers speak for themselves. Global Blue found that about a fifth of those shopping in the EU in 2021 had previously only shopped in the UK two years earlier, where they spent an annual average of €24,000 (£20,400) each. Last year, their spending dropped to zero in the UK but reached €22,000 (£18,700) each in the EU.

In a clear move to lure GCC tourists back to its shores, the UK government announced on May 11 that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would join other GCC states in being granted electronic visa waiver status. 

From June 1 of this year nationals of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain can apply to travel to the UK (for tourism, business, study or medical treatment) for up to six months with an electronic visa waiver which exempts them from the need to obtain a visa. 

“It is great news,” Patricia Yates, CEO of Visit Britain, said. “Saudi Arabia is one of our highest spending markets.

“We know there is strong pent-up demand for international travel from the Gulf and so making it easier for visitors to get to the UK is crucial to our competitive tourism offer.” 

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