Tourism rises

Scotland’s attractions enjoy surge in visitors

The Banksy show in Glasgow proved a big draw

Scotland’s tourist attractions enjoyed a bumper 2023, boosted by the reopening of the gallery of Scottish art and popular exhibitions.

Figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva) show that visits increased by 21% over the previous year, ahead of the UK average of 19%.

The surge, however, was dampened by one tourism group challenging the level of investment in Britain compared to competing countries.

According to Avla, Scotland’s top ten attractions alone drew 11.9 million visitors against 9.8 million in 2022. The country also had six of the 30 most-visited attractions in the UK, compared with five for the rest of the UK outside London.

Observers said the figures were boosted by the reopening of the Scottish art rooms at the National Galleries – which also had a Grayson Perry exhibition – together with Banky’s Cut and Run show at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art which enjoyed a 60% rise in visitors to 511,000.

The National Museum of Scotland enjoyed an 11% rise in visitors to 2.1 million to remain the nation’s most popular attraction and only 1% below the pre-pandemic 2019 figure.

Edinburgh Castle, the most popular paid-for attraction, had a 41% increase to 1.9m, while the National Galleries enjoyed a record-breaking year with 1.8m (up 44%).

Scotland’s top ten was completed by Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (1.3m); Riverside Museum in Glasgow (1.26m); Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (1m), the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle (773,000); Edinburgh Zoo (619,000); the Glenfinnan Monument (541,000); and Stirling Castle (517,000).

Bernard Donoghue, director of Alva, said: “Scotland is outperforming the rest of the UK, which we’ve found consistently for at least ten years.

“We are seeing strong, steady growth as part of the recovery post-Covid and lockdown in Scotland and the recovery is spread really well across indoor and outdoor attractions.

“We are seeing really strong overseas visitors back into Scotland, particularly in the central belt but also up into the Highlands.”

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was in the top ten (pic: Terry Murden / DB Media Services)

The total number of visits to Alva sites in the UK rose 19% last year to 147m, but still 11% below the 163.9m visits in 2019.

Indoor attractions benefited from a 23% increase, with outdoor attractions up 2%.

The most popular UK attraction was the British Museum (5.8m visits), up 42% on 2022, part due to the the China’s Hidden Century exhibition.

The Natural History Museum (5.7m), The Crown Estate, Windsor Great Park (5.5m); Tate Modern (4.7m) and Southbank Centre (3.2m) made up the UK top five.

Mr Donoghue added: “Following the Covid pandemic, 2022 was the first year of stability and last year was the first year of real growth. We are really optimistic that we are going in exactly the right direction.

“Every year it’s really clear that Scotland punches above its weight, and always consistently reports some of the biggest growth in visitor numbers for any part of the UK.

“That’s partly down to consistent investment from government, local authorities and organisations themselves into the product, making sure there are good museums and galleries.

“My only note of caution is that you need to continually invest in the product in order for it to be attractive and for the Scottish tourism economy to be as vibrant as it is.

“While the extension of tax relief for museums, theatres and galleries was a very welcome announcement in the recent budget, there was a missed opportunity to reintroduce tax-free shopping for overseas visitors, which would have improved the UK’s international competitiveness, and reduce VAT for tourism and hospitality which would have helped businesses repair their balance sheets.”

Despite Mr Donoghue’s comments on the benefits of investment, figures show only 81p per head of population is spent on marketing the UK overseas as a visitor destination.

That compares with an average of £5.88 per head across nine other competing destinations, according to Tourism Alliance, an umbrella group for 70 industry bodies that benefit from overseas visitors.

Its research found the UK allocated an extra £1.6 million per year to help tourism recover from the pandemic, compared with an average of £126 million for competing destinations. VisitBritain’s funding before the pandemic was 26 per cent lower than the average for other countries popular with tourists.

The Tourism Alliance has calculated that the funding for VisitBritain must rise by at least £14m to £69m a year, with an additional recovery fund of £15m, to compete with international peers.

Tom Jenkins, chairman of the Tourism Alliance, said: “We cannot presume that growth will happen automatically. The pandemic resulted in many other countries realising the importance of tourism to their economies. Many introduced well-funded tourism recovery and development programmes, making the international tourism market even more competitive.”

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