Tourism attractions with admission charges are struggling to grow visitor numbers at the same rate as those with free entry due to the cost-of-living crisis, new research shows.

Total visits to major free attractions rose by 92% from 34.6 million in 2021 to 66.2 million last year, according to PA news agency analysis of data published by trade body the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva).

That is compared with just a 46% increase from 37.9 million to 54 million for attractions with general admission charges.

Graphic showing visitor numbers to UK attractions
(PA Graphics)

The figures relate to 336 UK visitor attractions open in 2021 and 2022.

Among the paid-for attractions which saw visitor numbers fail to reach the average rise for free sites were Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, west London (no change), RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey (up 6%), ZSL London Zoo, north-west London (up 51%), Longleat, Wiltshire (up 16%) and Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (up 35%).

Alva director Bernard Donoghue told the PA news agency: “We’ve seen the cost-of-living crisis really have an impact on visitor numbers from about August of last year onwards.

“The British public are making tactical decisions about how they spend their leisure pounds and leisure hours.

“As a consequence, we’ve seen those free visitor attractions doing particularly well.”

The nine most popular UK attractions in 2022 were either free or only charged for special exhibitions and events.

Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, had the most visits at 5.6 million, up 4% on 2021.

Visitors to Windsor Great Park make their way up the Long Walk towards Windsor Castle
Windsor Great Park was the UK’s most popular visitor attraction last year (PA)

That was followed by the Natural History Museum, west London, with 4.7 million visits, nearly three times higher than the year before.

Strikes by rail and London Underground workers limited the number of people visiting theatres.

Mr Donoghue said: “That particularly had an impact over Christmas where a lot of Christmas shows and pantos were affected by the series of strikes over the winter period.”

Each day of a rail or Tube strike costs London theatres an average of £42,000 due to lost revenue and the cost of providing transport and accommodation to cast and crew members, he added.

Mr Donoghue said membership of museums, galleries and zoos “remained really quite strong” last year, showing that many people are “prioritising day visits above things like TV subscriptions”.

Overall visits to all Alva attractions in 2022 increased by 69% compared with the previous year, partly due to the UK’s coronavirus travel rules ending.

But total visits remained 23% below the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

Mr Donoghue expects demand for attractions to continue to rise this year, partly due to the return of visitors from China.

“They’ve only just recently been allowed to travel overseas,” he said.

“When the Chinese market comes back – as I confidently predict it will this year – I think we’ll see a really, really strong growth.

“The top attractions for Chinese visitors are the Roman Baths in Bath (Somerset), Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle and Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Warwickshire).”