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VisitBritain to target GCC as tourist spending recovers

Unesco World Heritage Site Stonehenge is one of the most popular places for tourists to visit outside of London Creative Commons
Unesco World Heritage Site Stonehenge is one of the most popular places for tourists to visit outside of London
  • GCC visitors to the UK down 18% on 2019, but spending up 7%
  • Tourists from the Gulf stay for an average of 12 nights
  • Travel will be further boosted by visa-free travel from the UAE

Spending by GCC-based tourists visiting the UK climbed above pre-pandemic levels for the first time in 2022, according to latest data from VisitBritain, the national tourism agency.

While visitor numbers from the Gulf were still 18 percent below 2019 figures at 202,000 during the second quarter, the amount they spent rose by 7 percent to about £485 million ($585 million).

The second quarter figures – the latest available – represented an improvement on the previous quarter when the number of visitors (138,000) was down by 36 percent and the total spending (£399 million) was 19 percent lower than the corresponding period in 2019.

For the wider Middle East, the UK received 458,000 visitors during the first half of 2022, who spent £1 billion during their stays.

During the pandemic tourism between the UK and the Gulf was hit hard as restrictions were placed on air routes between the two regions.

London is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Gulf Arabs. Around 1.2 million visited the UK in 2019, spending £2.6 billion.

Typically, a Gulf tourist spends longer in the UK, averaging up to 12 nights compared to seven for other nationalities which is why VisitBritain’s CEO Patricia Yates told AGBI that the GCC was an important tourism market for Britain.

“It is very encouraging to see the strong recovery of visitor numbers and spend from the region in 2022, helping to rebuild international visitor value and supporting jobs, small businesses and local economies right across the country,” Yates said.

“We know there is pent-up demand for travel from the GCC and we want Britain to be the destination of choice.

“We look forward to building on this demand with our new marketing campaign launching across the GCC early next year, and through our continued work with travel trade and partners in-market to drive bookings and showcase Britain as a dynamic, exciting and welcoming destination.”

Accessories, Person, Woman
VisitBritain CEO Patricia Yates

The UK-GCC tourism corridor is expected to be further boosted by the addition of the UAE to the list of countries eligible for visa-free travel to the UK.

The British government announced in June that the GCC countries will be added to its new electronic travel authorisation system in 2023, removing visa restrictions for Gulf passport holders.

Until then GCC travellers can continue to use electronic visa waivers that can be completed online before they enter the UK.

Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, head of strategic development for Mena at Apex Group, said: “Visa-free travel definitely will help tourism, but when it comes to trade and financial services, it’s more about making it easy to do business between the UK and GCC.

“You can literally jump on a plane and go do business without the two to three weeks of delays before you get a visa. This ease of doing business will substantially lift all sectors and boost the UK-GCC trade corridor.”

A number of GCC carriers are also increasing capacity to the UK as they expect recent rising demand to continue into 2023.

Emirates, the world’s largest international airline, ramped up its operations to Gatwick Airport with the addition of a third daily A380 flight earlier this month.

The Dubai-based carrier currently serves the UK with 119 weekly flights across seven UK hubs including London Heathrow, Gatwick, London Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.

Spire, Building, Tower
Emirates currently operates 119 weekly flights to the UK to destinations including Glasgow

Etihad Airways also increased its four daily flights to London Heathrow to five from July to September.

At the same time, Saudi Arabian Airlines, better known as Saudia, expanded its UK winter schedule with a new weekly flight to and from Manchester. Qatar Airways announced an additional three flights per week between Heathrow and Doha.

In total the UK saw 8 million inbound visits in Q2, around double the amount of visits in Q1, while year-to-date visits were around one third below 2019 levels. Some 64.1 million nights were spent in the UK over the period, down 4 percent on 2019. 

Visitors spent £6.8 billion from April to June, around the same pre-pandemic levels, and driven by a strong June.

VisitBritain forecasts spending by international visitors in the UK to reach £29.5 billion in 2023, up 4 percent on pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

UK tourism minister Stuart Andrew said: “It is fantastic to see that tourism is continuing to bounce back strongly after the sector received substantial government support during the pandemic.

“This predicted rise in visitor spending will give a further boost to the industry, helping to create new jobs and drive economic growth.”

Metropolis, City, Urban
GCC visitors spent about £485m ($585m) while in the UK during the second quarter of 2022

VisitBritain’s Yates added: “Our priority has been to rebuild international visitor value so it is very encouraging to see the continued strong recovery.

“Tourism is also an extremely competitive global industry,” she added, “and we’ll be out with a new campaign early next year competing hard in markets where we’re seeing strong growth.”

Earlier this year, VisitBritain launched a £10 million global campaign in Dubai to drive inbound tourism.