The monarchy is not the boon for tourism that it’s made out to be
Republic explains the facts behind the lies and statistics.
UK tourism is a major part of the UK economy, worth around £127bn a year. UK residents traveling within the UK and visitors from overseas spend billions on hotel bookings, visitor attractions, restaurants, theatre tickets etc. Overseas visitors alone add £28.4bn to the British economy. There are countless organisations set up to support the industry and to promote Britain, its constituent countries and our large towns and cities as tourist destinations. Tourism employs almost 10% of Britain’s workforce and attracted 40.9m visitors to the UK last year.
None of this has anything to do with Britain having a monarchy. Yet still people claim the monarchy is good for tourism. According to a poll a few years ago, some 80% of the British public believed the monarchy was important for tourism. And it’s not hard to see why this view is so widespread. Journalists looking for easy stories churn out the same old statistics without stopping to look at them carefully.
And then there’s VisitBritain’s claim, which has been debunked. In November 2010, William and Kate announced their wedding, which would be held the following year. VisitBritain responded by claiming the event would be great for tourism. In its press statements, it said the monarchy generates £500m a year in tourism revenue.
At the time Republic sent it a Freedom of Information request to VisitBritain, asking for any internal documents relating to its press release. It sent us a memo from their research department to its press office pointing out that they had no evidence that the economy would be helped by a royal wedding. Quite the opposite in fact. Their statistics showed that in 1981 and 1986, the years of the last two big royal weddings, tourism revenue fell.
We then took a closer look at that £500m figure. It was made up of the revenue of every single ticketed visitor attraction that had even the slightest connection to royalty, whether past or present. There was no evidence provided to suggest any of that revenue was because of the monarchy, rather than an interest in history or the merits of the individual attractions. VisitBritain stopped using the figure, but the £500m still does the rounds.
While £500m might sound a lot, it’s actually a tiny figure when compared to total GDP and Britain’s tourism industry. It’s actually smaller than the margin of error for calculating GDP, so even if it were lost to the economy the country would not notice. That figure only represents 0.01% of the UK’s economy or just 0.3% of income from Britain’s tourism industry or 1.9% of the UK’s heritage tourism. So, even when attracting people to the UK for our history and heritage, the royals do not make any difference.
In 2018, Republic sent another Freedom of Information request to VisitBritain asking for any data or research they might have that showed the impact of the monarchy on tourism. They could not provide any. Yet, the tourism line keeps getting repeated even while it’s admitted there is no evidence.
Some people claim that tourist agencies like VisitBritain can use the monarchy as a draw for tourists. They can, but they don’t. A quick look at VisitBritain’s promotional campaigns shows very little or no use of royalty to promote Britain as a destination, with only a passing reference to palaces and castles when talking about heritage attractions.
Chester Zoo is a more popular tourist destination than Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. According to figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) and the royal household’s own figures for their residences, Buckingham Palace is at best the 69th most popular attraction in the UK, Windsor Castle does better but is still only at number 18, behind Chester Zoo, Somerset House, Edinburgh Castle and the Botanic Gardens in Kew.
Kensington palace, which attracts visitors most of the year, comes in at 68th on the ALVA list. The Tower of London is the 9th most popular destination in the UK and the royals have not lived there or had much connection with it for centuries.
Palaces and castles attract interest because of their history, not because of today’s royals. Get rid of the monarchy and Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle can be fully opened up to tourists all year, funding their own upkeep through ticket sales and offering a unique glimpse into Britain’s past.
Buckingham Palace is thought to contain one of the largest and most valuable art collections in the world, including the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings – yet it’s all hidden away. The palace has the potential in a republic to become a world class museum and gallery open all year round.
These tourism claims aren’t just untrue, they’re also totally irrelevant to any discussion about the monarchy. The monarchy is part of our constitution. It’s corrupt, secretive, bad for our politics and totally unprincipled. Saying we should keep it because of some money coming in from tourism is an amoral argument: it says we’re more concerned about doing what’s profitable than what’s right. The good news is that we can do what’s right without losing a single pound in national GDP. It’s a fair bet that Britain becoming a republic would be such huge news it would attract more attention than any royal wedding ever has.
Republic (www.republic.org.uk) is a membership-based pressure group campaigning for the abolition of the monarchy and its replacement with a directly elected head of state. The text above is an abridged version of ‘The monarchy is not good for tourism’ (see https://www.republic.org.uk/tourism)