Andrew Stokes


Our statistics and research demonstrate the importance of churches and places of worship to our tourism offer.

Looking back at VisitEngland's 2019 annual survey of visitor attractions in England, visitor numbers, both domestic and international, to places of worship were up 7% compared to 2018 with revenue generated up 6%. St Paul's Cathedral, WestminsterAbbey and Canterbury Cathedral were all in the top 20 most 'paidfor' visitor attractions in England, ranking fourth, seventh and eleventh respectively. And when looking longer-term visits to places of worship in England have increased 5% on average each year during the three years from 2017 to 2019.

Statistics from VisitBritain show that our history and heritage are highly regarded attributes for overseas visitors. More than a fifth, 21%, of all inbound trips include a visit to a religious building in the UK, equating to about seven million visits annually. Overseas travellers that visit a religious building as part of their trip usually spend £7 billion in the UK overall every year.

Visiting churches and places of worship are also a draw for travellers interested in finding out about their ancestors and with the UK's strong links to countries in the Commonwealth, families from around the world pay their respects at war graves and in cemeteries to see the final resting place of loved ones.

Beauty, history and sheer wonder

The outstanding variety, beauty, history and sheer wonder of England's churches and places of worship are also very important in boosting visits right across our regions, including to destinations not always on the tourism radar.

Nestled both across the countryside and within our towns and cities, they encourage visitors to explore a destination year-round and have an important role in extending the tourism season, drawing visitors across the shoulder and low seasons. They also provide people with a moment away from the hustle and bustle of life to not only reflect but to learn more about an area's wider history and culture, telling the story of a destination and giving a sense of place and community, and often encouraging visits to other businesses and attractions, supporting local economies.

Visiting churches puts people in touch with local history like nowhere else – getting them to think about the residents behind the buildings, statues and plaques that commemorate local life, creating lasting connections that inspire future travel.

Supporting churches

The National Churches Trust has also been showing a new way forward for churches to benefit directly from tourism spend. The 'Experiences by ExploreChurches' project, which VisitEngland supported through the Discover England Fund, brings churches to life for today's visitors. By working with other organisations in their area, this project has supported churches in creating exciting itineraries that bring extra added value to a day-out and the wider
visitor experience.

It is also timely to reflect on the impact on the tourism industry from the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges ahead including for attractions. VisitEngland's latest annual attractions survey, for 2020, underscores the severe impact on visitor attractions from the COVID-19 pandemic with a 65% drop in visitors overall compared to 2019 and a 55% decline in revenue. These declines were driven by site closures associated with lockdowns and opening restrictions and the significant contraction of inbound and domestic tourism. The fall in visitor numbers last year to England's attractions was most marked for museums and galleries,

While we can see the green shoots of recovery, businesses have lost many months of vital trading. We are forecasting domestic tourism spending in Britain this year to be well below 2019 levels, £51.4 billion in 2021, just more than half of the £91.6 billion in 2019. Looking at inbound tourism, our forecast is for £5.3 billion in overseas visitor spending in the UK this year, less than a quarter of the £28.4 billion in 2019, with our cities and city visitor attractions particularly hard hit.

Churches on the must see list

Extending the season through the lean shoulder months and continuing to build confidence in taking domestic overnight and day-trips is crucial.

At the time of writing our latest consumer sentiment research, published on 17 September, shows that domestic travel intentions are up from the same time last year and most people still plan to continue with their UK trip even if all overseas travel restrictions lift. Looking at day-tips, 70% of those surveyed, representing 38.3 million UK adults, anticipated taking one this autumn or later. And with many churches being on the must see list for day-trippers now is the time to encourage visitors in.

Businesses and attractions including churches and places of worship have been working flat-out to welcome customers back safely, adapting and innovating to meet new ways of working and still providing a great visitor experience. Our We're Good To Go industry standard is well established with more than 565 churches and cathedrals in England registered on the scheme, ready to safely welcome back visitors.

So we hope people will consider revisiting or exploring somewhere new and having an extra day out. We know our tourism businesses and visitor attractions will be very pleased to welcome visitors back.

Andrew Stokes joined VisitEngland in 2016 as the England Director. Prior to this he spent 16 years as CEO of Marketing Manchester. He worked on the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the creation of a major events strategy for the city region.

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