London is quick to paint a bright future for its tourism industry in the face of Brexit, but it also needs to accept that visitors won't be happy with their experiences if the city loses its EU tourism workforce and that causes problems ranging from longer wait times to lagging infrastructure investment.
With negotiations underway some 14 months after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the mayor of London and London & Partners, the city’s tourism board, are releasing a plan they feel will keep the city competitive and help it weather the uncertainty that Brexit is causing across Europe.
London & Partners launched its first Tourism Vision For London report last week, which outlines how the city plans to manage tourism growth and win back international market share from other European cities.
Top of mind is London’s future ability to recruit tourism workers from outside the UK depending on the result of Brexit talks — and how the city can support millions of more visitors per year through the next decade.
The city projects it will have more than 40 million overnight visitors by 2025, a 30 percent increase from the 31.2 million overnight visitors last year.
But London – which had nearly 60 percent of its residents vote to remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum – will need an adequate tourism workforce to accomplish its growth goals as Brexit threatens to stymie working visas for workers from EU member countries. The city currently has about 700,000 workers employed in its travel industry, and EU workers from outside the UK make up about 25 percent of that number.
In its report, London & Partners said 30 percent of the city’s tourism workers leave their jobs each year and 10 to 30 percent of that number is estimated to leave the travel industry. The city estimates it must attract between 21,000 to 63,000 to fill the gap and maintain sufficient staffing levels at places such as hotels, attractions, restaurants, and transit hubs.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has said that Brexit shouldn’t make it harder for the travel industry to attract talent from mainland Europe.
“The mayor’s efforts to position London as an open and welcoming city are important,” said Bernard Donoghue, CEO of the London-based Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, who’s quoted in the London & Partners report. “So are the calls for UK cities to have a flexible immigration system that responds to demand, not one that places additional costs and burdens on employers.”
Donoghue said the mayor is calling for UK cities such as London to have greater influence in allocating work visas rather than the national government retaining that control. “It will be important that the Mayor’s Economic Development Strategy, and the Tourism Sector Deal under the government’s new Industrial Strategy, focus on addressing the impact of skills shortages on capacity and productivity in this sector,” he said in the report.
The report also mentions that aviation capacity must increase in the UK capital to sustain visitor growth and that runway expansions must be carried out. Potential Brexit restrictions on European airlines, however, are perhaps a more pressing fear that’s causing uncertainty among airline bosses across the continent.
Overtourism Isn’t a Problem For London — For Now
London wants to market its outer boroughs and other outlying areas as alternative destinations for tourists, but the city’s tourism board is hesitant to say this is because of overtourism, a problem plaguing other destinations such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, and Dubrovnik, Croatia.
The city is more concerned with growing its international market share and overall visitation numbers and doesn’t feel like it’s reached capacity, Chris Gottlieb, chief marketing and communications officer at London & Partners, told Skift.
While the city’s international market share (1.5 percent and 19.1 million overseas arrivals in 2016) has been growing since it hosted the 2012 Summer Olympics, it’s down from its peak 3.4 percent market share in 1977.
“We’re not tasked with infrastructure, we’re tasked with promotion,” said Gottlieb. “The U.S. market will continue to be our largest overseas market and that market is really important to this plan. We also want to make it easier and more accessible for business events to be held in London.”
London also signed a tourism partnership with Paris in March, which Gottlieb said was in large part because of the U.S. market. “We know that London and Paris are two of the most popular cities for Americans and we want to work with Paris to capitalize on that,” he said.
Improving Communication With Visitors Is Also A Priority
To encourage visitors to explore other neighborhoods and spread out visitor spending, the city plans to invest in digital channels to communicate congestion, travel, and wait times at popular attractions.
London will also promote outlying neighborhoods and districts with prominent messaging, focusing on short travel times such as a display reading ‘x destination only 20 minutes from Waterloo,” the report states.
Growing London’s Tourism During Shoulder Seasons
London & Partners is also launching its fourth annual autumn campaign (video) in an effort to market the city’s off-season offerings and events.
The tourism board is hoping that “Hamilton” will help boost visitation in the colder months once it arrives in London in November. London & Partners enlisted “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to appear in a promotional video for London’s fall campaign to spread the word that the blockbuster Broadway musical will open on London’s West End later this year.
Four NFL games will also be played in the UK this fall, and Gottlieb said the city hopes to attract even more NFL games in the future to grow interest from the U.S. market.
London isn’t doing anything that many other cities haven’t already done with mapping out how to grow visitation and pushing offbeat neighborhoods; many cities have also failed at similar attempts to drive visitation to outlying areas or received backlash from residents. London and the UK were also already more attractive to Americans and other overseas markets due to a weaker pound.
But it’s clear the city is bracing for Brexit to impact its tourism workforce and aviation sector especially hard, and while it wants to maintain its position as a leading inbound hub for European travel, it’ll be difficult to do that without enough staff and flights.
Recent trends indicate they will need to be able to accommodate more travelers. With overall overseas arrivals to the UK up 10 percent year-over-year for the off-peak months January to March and U.S. visits up 16 percent for the same period, London & Partners can likely expect that momentum to continue for the rest of this year.
Skift Daily Newsletter
Get the travel industry’s daily must-read email 6 days a week
Photo credit: Pictured are tourists on the London Eye overlooking Westminster Palace and Big Ben. London is laying out a strategy for tourism growth. firmatography / Flickr