Earlier this month ALVA published visitor numbers for 2023 which showed annual visits to the UK’s leading attractions were higher than in any other post-covid year, but still 11% below the 2019 peak.

The ALVA view is that 2023 was still a year of “recovery from lockdown”, which matches the assumption that Trajectory make when we forecast visitor numbers. We have begun refreshing our visitor number forecasts to account for the 2023 data; an important initial step is to understad how growth patterns in visitor numbers vary between attractions.

The Outlook for Visitor Attractions

The outlook for visitor attractions is a combination of post-covid changes in visitor numbers and longer-term trends in the number and types of visits that people make. To better understand the longer-term picture 2023’s visitor numbers should be compared not only to 2022’s numbers, but also against the number of visits made in the pre-covid period: 2019 and earlier. Across ALVA’s membership overall visits in 2023 were fewer than in 2019, but several attractions did enjoy growth.

This suggests that, while the covid impact did continue to suppress overall numbers, it has also driven changes in the types of attraction people choose to visit. The Natural History Museum is a high-profile example of an attraction that was more-visited in 2023 than in 2019, but there are also positive underlying growth trends among many outdoor attractions – including RHS Wisley who received 10% more visits in 2023 than in 2019, London Zoo (up 23% on 2019 visits) and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (up 5%).

Outdoor attractions enjoyed a boost to visitor numbers during the covid period and the 2023 figures suggest that many outdoor sites have successfully maintained visitor numbers at these elevated levels, even though indoor sites were better able to compete for visitors without the covid-related entry restrictions of the previous three years. This suggests that some social trends which intensified during the covid period might be altering the ‘mix’ of attractions that people choose to visit. We expect many of the leading outdoor sites to maintain visitor numbers at elevated levels (well above pre-2020 levels) such that during the 2020s outdoor visits will continue to account for a larger share of overall visits than during the 2010s.

Longer Term Analysis

To identify how the visitor trends of different attractions differ it helps to analyse over a longer period. Many attractions enjoyed a bumper year in 2019 – with visits well above the levels predicted by trends over the previous decade – and Trajectory’s forecasts suggest many attractions will not regain the 2019 peak in visitor numbers until the late-2020s. The post-covid recovery is perhaps better assessed by comparing to the average number of visits received per year over the 2015-19 period.

The 100 most-visited ALVA members received more than 100 million visitors in 2023 which was just 1.6% fewer than the 2015-19 average, albeit with significant variation across the UK: there were still 6% fewer visits to attractions in London than the 2015-19 average, but Scottish attractions received 4% more visits in 2023 than during a typical late-2010s year, with the Scottish National Gallery and National Museum of Scotland both receiving many more visits in 2023 than in the pre-covid period (increases of 17% and 10% respectively against the 2015-19 average).

The differing fortunes of attractions in London and Scotland perhaps illustrate the differing rates of recovery in domestic and overseas visitor numbers. A slower post-covid recovery in international visits than domestic visits would have a disproportionate impact on London attractions, which tend to be more reliant than their counterparts outside the capital on international visitors. In 2024 and beyond, visitor attractions will move from the “recovery from lockdown” phase of 2022-23 to a period when underlying longer-term visitor trends return to the fore and sites that receive mainly domestic visitors are likely to be at the forefront of this shift.

What does this mean for you?

Over the years Trajectory have produced visitor forecasts for Royal Museums Greenwich, the V&A, Historic Royal Palaces and the RAF Museum. We’ve also produced global tourism forecasts for the UN World Tourism Organisation.

If you work in the visitor attraction or wider tourism, culture, leisure or heritage sectors and are interested in finding out more about visitor forecasting and preparing for future change, please get in touch with Tim Yates (tim@trajectorypartnership.com)

Do you want more?

Request a no-obligation 7-day trial to our trends subscription service and get full access to expert research, trends articles, analysis, webinars, and our exclusive monthly Optimism Index.

Learn More