The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) has released the annual visitor figures of its members for 2021, painting a picture of a year in which museums and heritage sites across the UK felt the sting of Covid-19.

Its new data reveals that the total number of visits to ALVA sites in 2021 was 67.8million, a 25% increase on the previous year, but represented an annual decline of 57% on the 156.6million visits in 2019 to the top 306 ALVA sites.

Across the UK, the data shows that since 2020 Scotland has seen a 45% increase in the number of visits to their attractions, while London saw the weakest year-on-year performance with visits up just 17%, compared with 26% for other areas of England.

The impact of days closed have had an obvious effect on visitor figures in 2021; the average number of days that sites were closed in 2021 – when in a normal year they would have been open – was 99, or 31% of normal opening days.

Drops in visits to sites in the capital are somewhat explained by an average of 148 days closed across its sites, significantly more than the 81 days for attractions elsewhere in England. Overseas visitors also saw a dramatic fall. Of the sites that provided a figure, just 4% of visits in the past year were made by visitors from overseas.

Comparing the visitor figures of 2021 with those of 2019 shows that sites that are primarily outdoors welcomed 17% fewer visitors in 2021 than two years before.

ALVA reports that gardens and leisure are almost back to pre-pandemic levels but zoos remain 20% down year-on-year. Mixed sites, such as heritage and cathedrals saw a decline of approximately 51%, and those sites that are primarily indoors such as museums and galleries saw visitor numbers remaining 73% down on pre-pandemic levels.

Most popular outdoor attractions in 2021

For the first time the most visited outdoor attraction was outside of London. Windsor Great Park reports 5,400,000 visitors to take the top spot, while the second most visited attraction was Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew which saw a 61% increase to 1,963,171 and moved up two places compared to the previous years’ figures.

Most visited indoor attractions in 2021

Many of the indoor attractions were open at reduced capacity and reduced opening patterns in 2021, a trend which continues into this year to enable a Covid-safe environments.

The most visited indoor attraction in the UK was the Natural History Museum, which overall came in 4th place. It achieved a 21% increase year-on-year, with 1,5 million visits, followed by theBritish Museum in 6th place. It fell three places on the previous year, despite a 4% increase in visitors.

Tate Modern with 1,156,037 – moving from 1st place to 7th due to a 19% fall in their annual total, although their daily visitor numbers were 60% higher in 2021 than after reopening in 2020.

Somerset House – which presents a number of its cultural activities in its open-air neoclassical courtyard – bucked the trend and saw a 36% increase rising two places to 8th with 984,978, while the Science Museum in 9th place had an 11% increase in visitors to 955,873.

V&A South Kensington dropped three places to 11th with a 2% decline to 857,742 and the Tower of London moved 14 places from 19th to 33rd place with 526,379 visits.

The first Scottish attraction to appear in the table of results was the National Museum of Scotland in 20th place – the same position as last year, with a 48% increase to 660,741 visits, followed in 22nd place by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which dropped 5 places although it saw a 43% increase to 647,698 visits.

Significant increases in visitors in 2021

Some of the most significant increases in visitors were seen at Beamish, The Living Museum of the North which moved up nine places to 27th and saw an 95% increase to 593,985 visits.

Canterbury Cathedral saw a 187% increase and moved 112 places to 54rd with 336,928 visits, while Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in 39th place with a 150% increase to 438,376 visits.

The National War Museum, Edinburgh moved up to 75th place from 119th with a 123% increase to 277,359 visits.

Bernard Donoghue, Director of ALVA, commented: “These figures, in a unique year, show that tourism was hit first and hit hardest by the consequences of COVID and that there is a huge spectrum of those attractions, mostly outdoors, which are recovering well, but still many, mostly those which are usually heavily dependent on overseas visitors, which are still just surviving.

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 4 or 5 years after having first closed their doors.”

He continues: “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; the decision to end tax free shopping should be overturned as it is making the UK uncompetitive in the highly lucrative retail tourism market; and the reduced level of VAT for accommodation and attractions should be retained for at least the next financial year.”

Art Fund – News

The Top 50 UK ALVA attractions by total visits

2021 Rank 2020 Rank Site Total Visits in 2021 Total Visits in 2020
1 Windsor Great Park 5,400,000 5,900,000
2 4 Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1,963,171 1,222,956
3 6 Chester Zoo 1,601,327 1,182,652
4 2 Natural History Museum (South Kensington) 1,571,413 1,296,763
5 7 RHS Garden Wisley 1,410,785 993,516
6 3 British Museum 1,327,120 1,275,466
7 1 Tate Modern 1,156,037 1,431,704
8 10 Somerset House 984,978 724,310
9 9 Science Museum 955,873 862,085
10 Jeskyns Community Woodland 878,626 752,315
11 8 V&A South Kensington 857,742 872,750
12 Moors Valley Country Park 803,867 659,708
13 11 Southbank Centre 786,911 679,957
14 14 Longleat 727,800 495,037
15 5 National Gallery, The 708,924 1,197,143
16 Sherwood Pines 705,007 706,468
17 18 ZSL London Zoo 694,060 450,252
18 Royal Museums Greenwich 686,375 571,883
19 13 ZSL Whipsnade Zoo 669,574 550,046
20 20 National Museum of Scotland 660,741 445,217
21 12 Horniman Museum and Gardens 653,200 606,329
22 17 Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 647,698 452,479
23 29 Edinburgh Zoo 632,122 335,625
24 15 Westonbirt, The National Arboretum 607,040 532,026
25 23 Blenheim Palace 599,601 424,416
26 16 Attingham Park 597,154 483,946
27 36 Beamish, The Living Museum of the North 593,985 305,000
28 22 Eden Project 577,929 424,373
29 21 Cliveden 553,041 430,975
30 41 Chatsworth 540,927 279,400
31 High Lodge, Thetford Forest 537,098 426,747
32 38 Royal Albert Hall 531,407 299,059
33 19 Tower of London 526,379 447,812
34 Bedgebury National Pinetum 526,221 484,205
35 25 Tate Britain 525,144 382,139
36 26 Dunham Massey 522,346 388,908
37 27 Royal Academy of Arts 468,693 309,702
38 24 Clumber Park 448,588 404,589
39 Portsmouth Historic Dockyard 438,376 175,321
40 143 St Michael’s Mount 429,237 102,021
41 44 Edinburgh Castle 423,866 276,950
42 28 Wakehurst 411,828 342,545
43 45 RHS Garden Hyde Hall 410,846 276,003
44 30 Calke Abbey 407,292 334,694
45 31 British Library 403,312 337,103
46 39 RHS Garden Harlow Carr 401,727 296,043
47 49 Waddesdon Manor 389,435 262,849
48 56 Leeds Castle 389,363 239,050
49 60 Hampton Court Palace 376,107 227,447
50 42 Foutains Abbey Estate 364,057 284,923
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