Airport, photo by Tomas Williams on Unsplash

Why supporting tourism doesn’t mean supporting airport expansion

23 July, 2019

Sally Cairns

Jillian Anable

Reading time: 8 minutes

Sally Cairns and Jillian Anable reflect on a Westminster Media Forum policy conference on UK tourism, and the introduction to the next Commission on Travel Demand inquiry.

Sally Cairns and Jillian Anable reflect on a Westminster Media Forum policy conference on UK tourism, and the introduction to the next Commission on Travel Demand inquiry.

In terms of energy uptake in the UK, the air transport sector currently accounts for just under 13 million tonnes of oil equivalent, or around 9% of total final energy demand [1]. According to the Committee on Climate Change’s Net Zero report [2] – despite making generous allowances for potential technological changes and more sustainable fuels:

Agriculture and aviation stand out in our analysis as sectors where there are limited options currently available to reduce emissions… For aviation it reflects the high energy-density required for aviation fuel… A fully zero-carbon plane is not anticipated to be available by 2050, particularly for long-haul flights which account for the majority of emissions… New UK policies will therefore be needed to manage growth in demand… Action is also needed on non-CO₂ effects from aviation.

However, as concerns about aviation’s role in climate change increase, whilst some travel companies are actively calling for global action to limit flying, others are less convinced. A few weeks ago, I attended a Westminster Media Forum policy conference on the UK tourism industry, where some people seemed to be making the worrying assumption that supporting UK tourism must mean supporting airport expansion. Fortunately, aviation expansion is not necessary for UK tourism to flourish. In fact, it could be damaging.

According to work for VisitBritain [3], the majority – about 80% – of spending on UK tourism already comes from UK residents. According to the International Passenger Survey, in 2018, international visitors spent £22.9 billion in this country, averaging £604 per visit. Meanwhile, UK residents travelling abroad, spent £45.4 billion, averaging £633 per visit. It follows then, that encouraging a UK resident to spend their time here, instead of abroad, is just as important as attracting more foreign visitors.

In 2001, this effect was practically demonstrated, when the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks created a general reluctance to fly – in the following six months, increased spending by domestic tourists provided an unforeseen gain to the tourism industry, outweighing reduced spending by overseas visitors (by about £0.5 billion). More recently, a Barclays 2019 survey of 528 UK hospitality and leisure businesses shows a growing trend for staycations – with 55% of these businesses reporting an increase in demand from UK-based customers over the last two years, and three-quarters of these reporting an increase in revenue. The 2017/18 annual review of domestic English tourism by VisitBritain also suggests positive trends.

In this context, supporting aviation expansion could undermine UK tourism. According to Department for Transport forecasts, nationally, Heathrow expansion will generate an extra 29.1 million passenger movements through UK airports each year by 2030. However, whilst 2.3 million of these will be by foreign visitors to the UK, 8.2 million will be UK residents choosing to make new trips abroad. (The remaining 18.6 million will simply be international passengers changing planes [4].) In relation to road transport, it has long been accepted that increased connectivity can suck activity out of a place as well as feed it in. This is also the implication of the latest aviation forecasts. Meanwhile, potential increases in noise, air pollution and road traffic from airport expansion will not add to the ambience – or attractiveness to tourists – of the places they serve.

It was argued at the Westminster Forum event that it is critical that the UK is welcoming to visitors. However, passenger experience is not dictated by airport capacity – but by a range of issues, including how close to any given capacity an airport chooses to operate. Indeed, in 2010, the Government approach was specifically to aim for ‘better not bigger’ airports. According to the CEO of Heathrow Airport, airspace reorganisation is a critical factor for reducing delays in the south-east [5] – and much of this can take place without airport expansion. Indeed, the recently published Tourism Sector Deal, whilst very focused on inbound tourism, does prioritise improving air passenger experience, rather than airport expansion.

Finding ways to encourage people to stay longer (rather than come more often) could also be more energy-efficient (and more lucrative). It will also be important to improve the public transport and active travel options for journeys to key UK destinations; to promote relatively sustainable holiday activities; and to ensure that the benefits of domestic tourism are not over-concentrated in too few locations.

Fortunately, there are a number of trends pointing in the right direction. For example, in the Barclays’ survey of businesses, although places like the Lake District and the South West remained the most popular, the biggest increases in domestic tourism demand had taken place outside the most obvious destinations. In a linked survey that Barclays conducted of 2,006 UK holidaymakers, 44% said that notifications about local offers and discounts would make them more likely to make a particular booking – presumably also helping to encourage longer visits. VisitEngland’s ‘micro-gap’ research has shown that most younger people are now unlikely to take a gap year, but are interested in shorter UK breaks that can offer similar developmental and experiential opportunities [6].

As a ‘win-win’ scenario, active travel opportunities (with relatively low energy requirements) may be one way to appeal to domestic tourists. For example, VisitBritain’s Join the world – Discover the UK campaign, aimed at encouraging young people to holiday in the UK, talks of ‘moonlight kayaking in Northern Ireland’ or ‘mountain-biking down Elan Valley in Wales’. The Government is investing in the England Coast Path – a 2,700 mile walking route which will be the longest coast path in the world – partly on the basis that the coastline is already one of the UK’s top attractions. The National Cycle Network already hosts over 340 million leisure trips p.a. (both by bike and on foot) [7], with electrically-assisted bikes potentially increasing the appeal of cycling to many more people. The National Trust is the biggest host of weekly parkruns. Where promoting UK tourism can also help to improve the active travel opportunities for local people – or encourage people to make different transport choices once home [8] – there is the potential for multiple benefits.

In the Transport and Mobility theme of CREDS, we are exploring long distance travel demands. According to the National Travel Survey, of trips over 50 miles within the UK, 58% are for leisure (with higher proportions at longer distances) [9]. According to the International Passenger Survey, of international trips made by UK residents abroad in 2018, 89% were for leisure [10]. The importance of leisure in overall distances travelled, and the associated energy consumed, makes this a prime candidate for the next inquiry of the Commission on Travel Demand (CTD). Therefore, in parallel with the inquiry that the Environmental Audit Committee has just announced on sustainable tourism, the CTD will focus particularly on the travel aspects of leisure patterns (and associated energy use), with a call for evidence planned for the Autumn.


Grateful thanks to Tim Johnson, Carey Newson and Phil Goodwin.


  1. BEIS (2018) Energy Consumption in the UK (2018) Data Tables. Tables 1.01 and 2.01 (Figures for 2017, with aviation’s consumption based on fuel uplifted in the UK for both domestic and international aviation).
  2. Committee on Climate Change (2019) Net Zero: the UK’s contribution to stopping global warming. Quotes taken from pp147-8 and 206.
  3. Deloitte and Oxford Economics (2013) Tourism: jobs and growth. The economic contribution of the tourism industry in the UK. Figure 2.2.1a, data for 2010, 2011 and 2012. 2017/18 English data gives a similar figure, as per reference in footnote 9. House of Commons Transport Committee (2018).
  4. Airports National Policy Statement. Third report of session 2017-19, Figure 11, p49. Note that these are the forecast changes in passenger movements for the UK as a whole. At Heathrow, expansion is forecast to lead to an additional 46 million passenger movements p.a. by 2030, partly due to diversion from other airports.
  5. Transport Committee Oral evidence (5/2/18) Airports National Policy Statement, HC 548. John Holland-Kaye, Chief Executive Officer, Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd: “If you are flying into many airports, particularly in the southeast, very often you will be delayed because of congested airspace… Airspace needs to change across the whole of the south-east, not just for Heathrow expansion…” Q366 and Q433.
  6. VisitEngland (2018) Microgapping Research. Only 24% of 18-34 year-olds said that they were somewhat or very likely to take three months or longer off to travel in the next 3 years, whilst 64% found the idea of ‘microgapping’ somewhat or very likely, where microgapping was defined as “The habit of taking short breaks that encapsulates the developmental and experiential opportunities offered on a traditional gap year”. VisitEngland’s subsequent #MyMicrogap campaign has focused on 1-3 day breaks, although it is possible that longer breaks could be made appealing too.
  7. Sustrans (2018) Paths for everyone: Sustrans’ review of the National Cycle Network 2018 pp18-19 reports that there were 786 million trips made on the network in 2017, and that 44% were for leisure.
  8. In surveys of visitors who had tried out public transport or active travel options whilst on holiday, 36% said that they would be more likely to use them once back home. Cumbria Tourism (2016) Local Sustainable Transport Fund Visitor Travel Case Study Final Report.
  9. Department for Transport (2018) National Travel Survey: 2017 Table NTS0407; data for 2013-17 combined. Leisure defined as visiting friends at private home, holiday, day trips, visiting friends elsewhere, entertainment, sport and other including just walk.
  10. Office for National Statistics (2018) Travel Trends. Table 3.07. Leisure defined as ‘holidays’ and ‘visiting friends and relatives’.

Banner photo credit: Tomas Williams on Unsplash