2021 visitor figures highlight the pandemic’s ongoing impact

Headline figures for our annual Scottish Visitor Attractions Monitor, produced for ASVA by Glasgow Caledonian University’s Moffat Centre for Travel & Tourism Business Development, have been shared today.

Overall, last year’s visitor numbers were down over 47% on pre-pandemic levels. Paid-entry attractions welcomed just over 9 million visitors during 2021 compared to over 20 million in 2019 (a drop of 55%), whilst free venues had just over 20.2 million visitors last year compared to 35.5 million in 2019 (a drop of just over 43%). 

Outdoor, family-themed attractions, and sites with grounds and open-air activities, fared much better in general than predominantly indoor sites – reflecting continued consumer anxieties about infection transmission risks in enclosed spaces. The most visited paid-entry attraction in 2021 was Edinburgh Zoo, with 632,122 visitors, whilst perennial top free attraction – the National Museum of Scotland – was the year’s top free attraction once again, with 660,741 visitors. A drop in visitors of more than 1.5 million, when compared to 2019 figures, however, illustrates that it was a very challenging year for this iconic venue, as it was for virtually all indoor attractions.

As members will know only too well, indoor attractions were hit hard by having to undergo periods of closure and stop-start trading last year, and COVID restrictions such as physical distancing meant many were either unable to resume their operations fully or had to limit capacities for much of the main season. Figures from attractions that offer primarily indoor experiences reveal the extent to which their visitor numbers have been decimated during the past two years. Stirling Castle, for example, had 148,581 visitors in 2021 – an 88.1% increase from its 2020 total of 79,000 – however it saw a 75.6% decrease from its 2019 total of 609,698. Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum had 288,212 visitors in 2021, an 84.3% drop from its 2019 pre-pandemic total of 1,832,097.

ASVA CEO, Gordon Morrison, said: “The 2021 figures highlight what a uniquely challenging time attractions have experienced. This latest data provides clear evidence that our sector has been hit extremely hard for a considerably extended period of time due to the pandemic. Whilst we’ve seen some very welcome positive signs that business at a number of attractions is beginning to bounce back, so many of our operators are still in survival mode, and the vast majority unfortunately still face a very long road ahead to recovery.”

ASVA has long been lobbying the UK and Scottish Governments for additional assistance to stimulate recovery within the sector, advocating measures including the retention of the reduced level of VAT for attractions, as well as a continuation of 100% business rates relief. More recently, we have been strongly advocating for a second round of the VisitScotland-administered Days Out Incentivisation scheme. Created to stimulate domestic market visitation, the initiative’s positive impact was unfortunately impeded by the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant and the resultant return of government guidance regarding transmission risks in public spaces.

Gordon went on to say: “The major impact of the continued lack of an international audience is reflected in the figures we see today. Forecasts indicate that overseas visitor numbers won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024/2025 so attractions will continue to be heavily reliant on the domestic market, and business recovery will depend on that. We need to promote the fact that with fewer overseas visitors, there’s never been a better time for Scottish and UK residents to discover and explore the world-class visitor attractions on their doorstep. Visitors can take advantage of the uniquely quieter conditions with more space to enjoy attractions at leisure, and they’ll have the opportunity to enjoy more in-depth, personalised interactions with visitor services staff. There really are many more opportunities now to benefit from a truly enriched, immersive visitor experience.”

For the Scottish Visitor Attractions Monitor, 646 attraction operators provided their visitor figures for 2022, together with comparable pre-pandemic 2019 statistics. Key results from the report were as follows:

Attraction             2021 Visitors       2019 Visitors         Difference                    % Difference

Free                       20,206,442           35,551,821           – 15,345,379                         – 43.2%
Paid entry               9,079,189           20,167,719           – 11,088,530                          – 55.0% 
Total                       29,285,631          55,719,540            – 26,434,909                         – 47.4%

The full report will be published in the coming weeks and will be made available to ASVA members in the Members area of our website.  In the meantime, the top ten list of free and paid attractions in 2022 can be found here.