The UK visitor attractions where numbers soared in 2021

Visitor numbers in 2021 for some of Britain's top tourist attractions have been made public, and while there's good news for many places, others struggled as the pandemic continued to bite. Annunciata Elwes takes a look.

In 2021, numbers of visitors to UK attractions were 57% lower than pre-pandemic 2019 levels, despite an increase of 25% on 2020, show the latest figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA).

Somewhat unsurprisingly only 4% of visitors were from overseas and, interestingly, London saw the weakest year-on-year increase: only 17%, compared with an average of 26% across the rest of England. That’s reflected in numbers visiting two of the biggest draws in the capital: The National Gallery was down 41% and Westminster Abbey 26%.

With domestic tourism booming, it’s equally unsurprising to hear that attractions in Scotland did very well, up 45% on average — and Edinburgh Castle seeing 53% more visitors.

Anything outdoors did fairly well, with only 17% fewer visitors than in 2019, but galleries, museums and other indoor venues are down 71%. Last year, with a footfall of 5.4 million, Windsor Great Park was the country’s most popular attraction — the first time the crown (pun intended) has gone to a place outside London, and outdoors in general.

Windsor Great Park – The Long Walk.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, came second (up 61%) and Chester Zoo third (up 35%), followed by the Natural History Museum and RHS Wisley.

The Temperate House at Kew Gardens.

‘There is a huge spectrum of those attractions, mostly outdoors, which are recovering well,’ explains Bernard Donoghue, director of ALVA. But the news isn’t all good: ‘Overseas visitors to the UK are not likely to be back to pre-pandemic levels until 2024/2025, so for many of our most iconic attractions this means not getting back to financial resilience for four or five years after having first closed their doors.

‘To help tourism businesses repair their balance sheets, the Government should reverse its decision that EU school and youth groups need to travel to the UK on passports rather than ID cards, as this has meant that the school and youth market to the UK from the EU has suffered considerably.’

This year, there are high hopes that The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and its various events and exhibitions will have a positive impact; 2022 also marks the 110th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking and 1,900 years of Hadrian’s Wall.

  • St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, 321% increase in visitors on the previous year
  • Kensington Palace, London W8, up 253%
  • Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds, 216%
  • Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, 187%

The vaulted interior of Canterbury Cathedral.

  • Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, 150%
  • National War Museum, Edinburgh, 123%
  • Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1, 121%
  • Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 113%
The new bridge to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall

The new bridge to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. Justin Minns / English Heritage

  • Beaulieu, Hampshire, 96%
  • Beamish, The Living Museum of the North, 95%
  • Chatsworth, Derbyshire, 94%
2011 — The view from the theatre tower (belvedere) at Chatsworth House. The surroundng park was landscaped for the 4th Duke of Devonshire by Capability Brown. ©Paul Barker/Country Life

The view from the theatre tower (belvedere) at Chatsworth House. The surrounding park was landscaped for the 4th Duke of Devonshire by Capability Brown. ©Paul Barker/Country Life