VisitEngland annual survey for 2021 highlights impact on visitor attractions

06 September 2022

VisitEngland has today 6 September published its Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions in England for 2021.

The survey shows that while visits to visitor attractions in England increased by 30% overall last year compared to 2020, as attractions began to reopen and build back from the pandemic, 2021 visitor numbers were still down 55% on 2019 (see slide 11 in the full report for more information).

The survey, which gathered information from 1,142 English attractions, also shows the impact from the absence of international visitors with a drop of 39% last year in the number of overseas visitors to attractions in England.

VisitEngland Director Andrew Stokes said:

“While it is good to see that attractions started to make up some lost ground last year, these statistics are a stark reminder of the severe impacts on many of England’s visitor attractions which, even as they reopened in 2021, had to operate with much reduced capacity. It also underscores the importance of international visitors especially to our city attractions.

“From our world-renowned museums, galleries, castles and historic houses to our rural, wildlife and outdoor attractions, our outstanding visitor attractions are crucial to our tourism offer, also boosting local economies across England. We know it has also been a mixed picture for many attractions across England this summer highlighting the importance of extending the season through autumn and beyond.”

Paid For’ Visitor Attractions in England in 2021:

The most visited ‘paid for’ attraction in England in 2021 was Kew Gardens, the second year in a row that it has taken the top spot, with 2.0 million visitors, up 61% on 2020 although still down 15% on 2019. Chester Zoo was second with 1.6 million visitors, still down 23% on 2019, and RHS Garden Wisley third with 1.4 million, which was up 14% on 2019.


‘Free’ Visitor Attractions in England:

Topping the list of free attractions in England in 2021 was Brighton Pier with 4.3 million visitors, up 4% on 2020 although still down 13% on 2019. Second was the Natural History Museum with 1.6 million visitors, up 21% on 2020 however still a decline of 71% on 2019. The third most visited free attraction in England in 2021 was the British Museum with 1.3 million visitors, up 4% on 2020 but still down 79% on 2019.

Categories of Attractions:

The pace of recovery varied substantially across visitor attraction categories. Site closures in 2021 associated with lockdowns and opening restrictions meant a reduced season with required health and safety standards also seeing many sites operating with reduced visitor capacity, as well as the ongoing impacts from the absence of international visitors.

The visitor attraction category ‘Museums/Art Galleries’, many of which rely on overseas visitors, made up the least ground with an increase of 18% in visits in 2021. This followed an average fall in visitor volume of 76% in 2020 compared to 2019.

The category ‘Steam/Heritage Railways’ saw the largest percentage increase out of all visitor categories in the 2021 attractions survey with numbers up 118%, following a decline of 55% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Urban attractions overall saw the smallest percentage increase in visits in 2021, up 23%, partly due to lockdown restrictions delaying their reopening but also people being more reluctant to visit indoor attractions. The increase was on an average fall in visitors of 74% in 2020 compared to 2019. Attractions in coastal areas fared better with visits up 47% in 2021, following a drop of 59% in 2020 versus 2019.

London attractions, with their greater reliance on international visitors, saw the lowest percentage increase in visitor numbers to attractions in 2021, up just 12%, with lower confidence in using public transport a factor. It follows the 77% drop in visits to London attractions in 2020, when compared to 2019.

The survey also showed that many attractions continued to develop their digital offer and technology to connect and engage with visitors during the pandemic with online tours and videos the most popular. Almost a third of attractions surveyed, 32%, also developed an online retail offer to help grow their revenue. The use of online booking systems more than doubled to 62% by the end of 2021, compared to 26% in 2019.

Almost two-thirds of attractions surveyed had engaged with VisitEngland’s  ‘We’re Good To Go’ industry standard, which supported businesses to reassure customers and staff that processes were in place to welcome them back with confidence as restrictions eased.

To see the results of the VisitEngland Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions in 2021 including regional data for attractions see:

Notes to Editors:

Information about the VisitEngland Annual Attractions Survey 2021:

  • The VisitEngland Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions is carried out on behalf of VisitEngland by BVA BDRC and is based on a survey of 1,142 England visitor attractions. The full report is available here. 
  • The VisitEngland Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions is a self-completion survey. There is no obligation for any visitor attraction, or any parent company / group of attractions to supply data. In addition, visitor attractions have the option of taking part in the survey anonymously, meaning not all visitor attractions that participate in the survey are named in the report or included in ranked lists of attractions.
  • For a number of the attractions, data has been included with kind permission of ALVA (Association of Leading Visitor Attractions), English Heritage, Historic England, The National Trust as well as several Destination Management Organisations.
  • Historic England contribute to the funding of VisitEngland’s Annual Survey of Visits to Visitors Attractions.
  • Please note the ‘Workplace’ category is defined as industrial/craft attractions.
  • Country Parks are included in the research if they meet our definition of a visitor attraction (i.e. that it would be feasible to charge admission for the sole purpose of sightseeing).  In the context of Country Parks, this means that they should include a feature such as a botanical garden, historical monument or visitor centre. Due to the difficulty in gather accurate visitor numbers at Country Parks they have been excluded from the most visited lists, but they are included in the Full Attractions Listing.