Youth and student travellers coming to the UK contribute £22.3bn to the country’s economy, more than the top 20 football clubs or budget airline Ryanair.
Higher education, further education and language travel are the sectors within youth travel providing the biggest boosts to the economy, according to a report by the British Education and Travel Association.
However, with average growth of 4.7% over the last five years, the sector is not keeping pace with the country’s overall tourism market. Figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics show the country’s overseas travel and tourism market grew 19% between April 2016 and April 2017.
“There are still massive opportunities, it’s just not growing as quickly and policy could change in a very favourable way”
Providers in the youth travel industry, which caters to youth and student travellers 34 years old and younger, say the slowdown in growth is the result of arduous visa policies, Brexit and, until recently, the strength of the pound.
“We did an initial study five years ago which showed a value of £20bn, so it’s gone up, but it’s not where it should be,” said Steve Lowy, chairman of BETA. “There are still massive opportunities, it’s just not growing as quickly and policy could change in a very favourable way, very quickly in a very easy manner.”
A BETA survey of 336 providers in the UK and their overseas partner organisations representing 1.5 million youth and student travellers found that all agree a more friendly visa application process would help the UK compete with other top destinations like the US and Canada.
“There are very few changes that need to be done to make a big impact: international students out of net migration, a better welcome message and an easier visa policy,” said Lowy. “Just an easier application process that’s not so arduous. Currently it’s not in favour of anyone out of the EU, particularly students in the US, Asia and the Middle East.”
Youth and student travellers represent 38% of all visitors to the UK, the report found. Of the surveyed overseas sending organisations which included outbound tour operators, travel and education agencies, 55% promote higher education programs, 80% promote language travel courses and 57% promote the UK’s primary & secondary education.
With Europe accounting for 77% of all youth travel to the UK (led by France, Germany, Ireland and Spain), the future of movement policy post-Brexit will deeply impact the tourism and student travel sector. Further complicating the matter, a third of staff at responding organisations are from the EU.
“It’s going to be a huge issue not for members of our association but for the whole country,” commented Lowy.
Just over 40% of surveyed UK providers said strict visa policies, currency fluctuation and the negative impact of Brexit are obstacles they face. However, the lower value of the pound has resulted in an unexpected boom for businesses catering to youth and student travellers.
When asked how the Brexit result impacted the number of cancellations and bookings, the majority of providers said there had been no change. The increased desire to travel to the UK has translated into 30% of providers experiencing a higher number of enquiries (in contrast to 14% reporting a decline).
“The pound should’ve been devalued a long time ago, not just because of inbound tourism but because I believe our currency has been overvalued for at least 25 years,” commented Kyle Lewis-McDonald, sales and marketing director at education company Cultural One. “Our exports are all buoyant because of the devaluation.”
“Our exports are all buoyant because of the devaluation”
According to surveyed sending organisations, students were reportedly attracted to the UK for study purposes firstly because of the native English environment and the high quality education.
Cultural immersion and lifetime experiences, and positive word of mouth from previous students were all secondary factors.
Eighty-nine percent of overseas partners said they would not stop promoting the UK after Brexit.
However, the surveys of both international organisations and providers show that both agree customers are becoming more price sensitive, motivated first and foremost by cost. Both groups observed a greater demand for cheaper programs compared to five years ago.
Customers are also becoming younger, the survey found, with stays shortening to on average 8.2 weeks (still considerably longer than the average tourist say of 7.4 nights), likely the result of the strength of the pound since 2012.
Further showing the growing cost-sensitivity of youth travellers to the UK, almost 60% of international sending organisations said lower prices in other destinations are preventing them from sending youth and student travellers to the UK. Currency fluctuations and economic difficulties in their own countries were also among top barriers to sending students to the UK.