Sandie Dawe is former Chief Executive of VisitBritain. She is a Trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Chair of Kids In Museums, and sits on the board of London & Partners. Before joining VisitBritain she worked in media, book publishing and tourism, and in 2008 was awarded an MBE for services to the tourist industry.

When we think of the influence that a city like London exercises across the globe, it’s natural to think of that influence being exercised abroad. But that is too simple. While people around the world do engage with London remotely – they learn about it at school, read about it in books and papers, see it on TV, or meet visiting and immigrant Londoners – their most intense engagement with it will be as visitors to the city, whether as students, migrant workers or tourists.

Millions of people visit London every year for business, leisure or study, creating a web of human connection which helps the UK maintain a prominent position in the collective global consciousness. So what is it that makes London so attractive to potential visitors? And what can we do to ensure tourism continues to bolster our soft power?

Tourism in London is booming. There were a record 16.8 million visitors from at least 60 overseas markets in 2013, 1International Passenger Survey, Office for National Statistics making London one of the most visited cities in the world. Last year tourism added over £9 billion to the London economy and is responsible for 200,000 jobs across the capital. 2‘London 2036: An Agenda for Jobs and Growth’, McKinsey and London First, January 2015 Motivations to visit vary from market to market, but the city’s cultural offer is a consistent draw; the British Museum alone recorded over 4 million visits from international tourists in 2013. 3Department for Culture, Media and Sport Performance Indicators 2012/13 and Association of Leading visitor Attractions 2013 The Royal Family and Buckingham Palace have a strong appeal, especially to American visitors. Shopping, parks and nightlife all contribute to a perception of London as a vibrant and appealing place to visit. However London’s appeal is arguably more complex and layered than this. Its history at the epicentre of a trading Empire; celebrated diversity and openness; success as a financial centre; famous educational, cultural and sporting institutions; and popularity as a destination for start-ups are all unique elements of London’s identity and attractiveness to tourists.

The 2012 Olympics were an opportunity to demonstrate the appeal of London and the UK to the world. The opening ceremony was a once-in-a-generation chance to communicate directly with a global audience of 900 million – and it presented a powerful and inspirational statement of British identity. The effectiveness and reach of the opening ceremony, the use of central locations such as Horse Guards Parade and Greenwich Park, and the welcome famously extended by the 70,000 volunteers across the city combined to exert a strong pull to London after the Games. The following year Britain topped the annual Monocle soft power ranking for the first time, and had moved up a place in the Anholt GfK Nation Brands Index Survey.

The 2012 Olympics were an opportunity to demonstrate the appeal of London and the UK to the world

Marketing activity was carefully planned both pre- and post-Games to capitalise on the opportunity. Limited Edition London ran prior to the Games, highlighting a raft of temporary attractions and offers, successfully offsetting the displacement effect experienced by many other cities. Following the Olympics, the London – Now see it for yourself campaign was rolled out, seizing the opportunity to convert viewers into visitors. Tourism campaigns such as these involve far more than the straightforward purchase of advertising. Huge PR efforts result in articles and programmes across a variety of travel, food, fashion and lifestyle media. Increasingly the focus is also on using digital and social media to encourage the creation of third party images and reflections about London on sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest.

As the halo effect created by the Games recedes, the challenge is on to maintain London’s pull as a visitor destination. The upward trajectory in tourist numbers is far from guaranteed to continue. Established and emerging competitors are investing heavily in promotion designed to capture a greater share of global tourism. Hong Kong, for example, spent £52 million on promoting to potential leisure tourists in 2013 compared to the £10 million spent on the marketing of London around the world. 4‘Benchmarking the effectiveness of London’s promotional system; A report for London First’, Deloitte, November 2014

London’s appeal is strong and deep, but effective promotion remains essential to catalyse visits, particularly from emerging markets with weaker cultural and historical ties to the UK. 60% of London’s overseas visitors come from just ten markets, comprising the USA, Western Europe and Australia. However the strongest growth in outbound tourism is coming from China; London currently ranks just 22nd on the list of long haul cities visited by Chinese tourists. 5International Passenger Survey, Office for National Statistics

Ensuring that London captures a greater proportion of the Chinese market, as well as other emerging markets such as Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, is critical if we want London tourism to continue to bolster the UK’s soft power. Success relies on three main areas of activity.

The first is the removal of logistical barriers to inbound tourism. One of the major obstacles is the relative lack of direct flight connections to emerging markets, held back by the lack of airport capacity at London’s hub, Heathrow. Another example is the requirement for Chinese visitors planning to visit Europe to apply for a separate visa if they wish to visit the UK (given the UK’s non-participation in the pan-European Schengen Agreement); active lobbying has helped secure agreement from the Home Secretary to streamline this process.

The second is ensuring that London’s tourism ‘product’ is appealing and accessible to visitors from emerging markets as well as our more established markets. VisitBritain recently launched the GREAT China Welcome Charter to steer Chinese tourists towards tourism providers who are ‘China ready’ – for instance they may employ Mandarin-speaking staff, provide translated websites, apps or literature or have facilities for customers to pay using China UnionPay.

Thirdly, effective promotion must be adapted to different markets, based on insight into which aspects of London are the most appealing. London & Partners, VisitBritain and the GREAT campaign are collectively delivering a raft of effective marketing activity; but gaps remain in terms of the range of markets covered and the depth with which they are targeted. At London & Partners efforts are being made to attract greater private sector sponsorship, and to pool resources with regional promotional bodies to develop ‘London plus’ campaigns. Such campaigns build on London’s strong international brand to attract visitors, while encouraging them to extend their stay by visiting other areas of the UK.

London is one of the UK’s major assets, and a real contributor to soft power. Its ability to reinvent itself across the centuries has helped it remain relevant and appealing to people across the globe, who have sought London out as a place to live, work, study and visit. We need to ensure London remains an open, accessible destination for visitors from all over the world so that millions keep arriving – and returning home to spread the word.

Notes   [ + ]

1. International Passenger Survey, Office for National Statistics
2. ‘London 2036: An Agenda for Jobs and Growth’, McKinsey and London First, January 2015
3. Department for Culture, Media and Sport Performance Indicators 2012/13 and Association of Leading visitor Attractions 2013
4. ‘Benchmarking the effectiveness of London’s promotional system; A report for London First’, Deloitte, November 2014
5. International Passenger Survey, Office for National Statistics