British tourist numbers are lower than before the pandemic. | Archive

There was a report a couple of weeks ago which maintained that British tourism in the Balearics had recovered its pre-pandemic number. This was based on the first nine months of the year. Had the number been recovered? Figures readily available from the Balearic tourism ministry and the Ibestat Balearic Statistics Institute suggest otherwise.

Up to end-September 2023, the Balearics attracted 3,284,352 British tourists. A comparison with 2022 is not satisfactory because there were travel restrictions early in the year. 2020 and 2021 cannot be used for comparative purposes. But as was stated, the recovery was in terms of pre-Covid. For the first nine months of 2019, there were 3,323,113 British tourists. Recovery?

A difference of minus 38,761, you might say, is not a huge difference. And you would be right, it isn't huge, just over one per cent of the cumulative total until September 2019. But if you then consider the totals for 2016 to 2018, you will discover that this year's total was lower than each of these. The absolute peak was 3,378,402 in 2017 - yes, the year after the tourist tax was introduced. Ok, there were 69,000 fewer Brits in 2018, which was when the tax was increased, but this number "recovered" by 13,878 the following year. It cannot be concluded that the tourist tax has had much impact.

Other factors have been in play, the cost of living most obviously. But then we are consistently informed by the likes of the ABTA travel association that holiday habits haven't been particularly altered because of this. Granted, there may be some diversion to other destinations perceived as being cheaper, but the fundamental dynamics of tourism in the Balearics remain intact. This means that there is continuing high loyalty and appeal, and not just for the British.

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Is decline the right word? Perhaps not. It may be more appropriate to say that British tourism isn't growing, which would be a reason for pressing the claims of the low season and its various attractions. But is it legitimate to contemplate a third option - a plateauing, a levelling-off in demand? If one considers the other main foreign tourism market, Germany, there has been a similar pattern to the British. For the first nine months of this year, there were 4,990 fewer German tourists than in 2019. Neither here nor there, but by comparison with the peak 2017 the decrease was over 290,000.

The German market may be slightly more volatile than the British, but fears about the cost-of-living impact can't be said to have been realised this year, not when one makes a comparison with 2019.

A key point to be made is that, as of the end of September, the cumulative total for all tourists in the Balearics was over one million more than in the record year of 2018. And this was despite the two main markets both having been down compared with the year immediately prior to the pandemic. Other markets are growing, which does maybe reinforce the notion of a plateau in demand.

There are summer months when the UK supplies more tourists than Germany, but overlooked in this is the fact that the Spanish market was bigger than both the UK and Germany in August this year and last year, something which never happened pre-Covid. Spain is growing, or has been, whereas the two main foreign markets have not been.

Should this apparent decline be a cause for concern? Not necessarily, no, as the greatly increased number of tourists in 2023 points to growth of other markets. It does perhaps reinforce a need to strengthen winter air connectivity in order to grow the UK low-season market. But in general terms, is it the case that mature markets such as the UK and Germany reach maximum levels and then continue with slight variations year after year? A question is whether these variations will be downward or upward, because at present the UK is showing a downward trend.