French and German tourists are beginning to avoid the UK, tourism leaders fear, because of post-Brexit restrictions on travelling with identity cards.
Since anti-Covid measures ended across Europe last year, tourism has started to recover, but there are growing signs that significant numbers of French and Germans – two of the largest markets for UK tourism – are staying away.
Since October 2021, EU citizens have needed a passport to enter the UK. Previously they could use ID cards, but less than half the population of France and Germany hold a valid passport. People who run tourist attractions and businesses in the UK say that although Americans have returned in large numbers, the French and Germans have not.
Jersey’s government is so concerned that last month it announced a pilot project allowing French citizens to show their ID cards on day trips to the island. This year, walking tours in Oxfordshire, a significant part of the tourist trail for foreign visitors, are seeing bookings from France and Germany at half their 2019 levels.
The number of passenger vehicles transported by Le Shuttle through the Channel tunnel in the first two months of 2023 dropped to 251,175, compared with 314,497 in 2019. Brittany Ferries said in December that it had 155,000 arrivals in 2022 compared with 338,000 in 2019.
The decline is not just down to the issue of passports – Brexit has also battered the perception of Britain as a welcoming nation for tourists. Data from Visit Britain and the Anholt Ipsos Nation Brand Index shows a decline in how French and German people view the UK’s standing compared with other countries.
In 2016, Germans ranked the UK as the 7th best place to visit, and French people ranked it 9th. By 2022, the UK had fallen to 16th and 14th respectively.
Joss Croft OBE, chief executive of UKinbound, the trade association for the inbound tourism industry, said French and German tourists still regard the UK very highly.
“However, we know that the introduction of the new requirement for passports for EU citizens to access the UK … is proving to be a deterrent to travel, particularly for school groups, due to the additional costs and bureaucracy,” he said.
School groups are particularly badly affected because if one or two children in a class of 30 do not have passports, teachers will elect to travel to Ireland or Malta for English language trips instead. Children with non-EU passports, such as refugees, will also need a £95 visa to enter the UK.
Research by the Tourism Alliance last year found there had been an 83% drop in schoolchildren and students visiting the UK, leading to a loss of £875m and 14,500 jobs.
About 28 million people in Germany have passports, according to a 2007 parliamentary answer, out of a population of 83 million. In France, about 32 million passports have been issued in the last 10 years, out of a population of 67 million.
Hayley Beer-Gamage, chief executive of Experience Oxfordshire, said that bookings from French and German groups were at 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
“That clearly shows that actually the market isn’t returning, and [the] desire … to visit Oxfordshire, England, the UK, is not there as it was before the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that the nation is not losing those markets the other side of the pandemic.”
David Edwards of the Scattered Clouds travel consultancy said that holiday visits from France and Germany had been falling since 2015, while those from elsewhere had risen.
“Broadly speaking, many Europeans have a less favourable view of some aspects [of the UK],” he said. “They are a really important market. The Germans, particularly, visit parts of Britain that others do not, like Devon and Cornwall. But they’re not going to disappear.”
Last month, when Rishi Sunak met Emmanuel Macron following the announcement of the Windsor framework, the leaders announced that France and the UK would expand opportunities for school trips.
Emma English, executive director of the British Educational Travel Association (Beta), said that ID cards remained an issue, but her members were “enthused by the declaration”. “There is however no information [on this],” she added. Beta has written to Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, asking for details.
Businesses are also concerned about plans to introduce electronic travel authorisation (ETA), rolling out from October. The scheme, similar to the US’s Esta system, will mean that even tourists who do not require a visa will need to pay for a digital permit.
Richard Toomer, executive director of the Tourism Alliance, said ETAs need to be priced at a reasonable level. “We really need to look again at our high visa costs,” he said.
“European ID cards no longer being accepted at the UK border is a significant barrier to certain travellers, especially school groups, but we’re hopeful we’ll see some movement on this soon, particularly for travellers to and from France.”