VisitBritain is Britain's national tourism agency, tasked with marketing Britain in 36 countries in addition to promoting England in Britain, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. British tourism is worth approximately £86 billion to the UK economy every year. Some £66 billion of this is generated by domestic residents on trips taken within the UK, a further £16 billion by overseas visitors to Britain. It is Britain's fifth largest industry and employs over two million people.

Generally speaking, Britain's main influx of overseas visitors have tended to come from the US, Germany, France, Spain and Ireland. The market is, however, changing — especially as Asia is beginning to play a more important role in the world tourism market and destined to be the driving force for outbound and inbound tourism over the coming years.

Europe as a whole is forecast to enjoy a 30% increase in visits from Asia and a 31% rise from the Middle East over the next couple of years. During the same period, Europe is expected to experience only a 14% increase from North America, traditionally one of Britain's main money earners. The falling dollar exchange rate is partly to blame, with North Americans now looking for cheaper, more affordable destinations. Britain is also slipping down the "must see now" list because of the growing popularity of "new" destinations such as India, Thailand and Croatia,

Why not visit now?

Britain is, however, still a place most people say they would like to see — but there appears to be a lack of urgency to visit now, something which VisitBritain is trying to address with its "Be A Brit Different" campaign.

France and Italy are Britain's main competitors as they offer a very similar product offering to our own: a perceived historical cultural mix. All are strong short break city destinations, which means they've benefited from the fierce price wars from low cost airlines over the past couple of years. Britain's world famous history and heritage combined with its unique blend of contemporary culture is the main reason why people come here.

Preferred visitor activities tend to be visiting castles and stately homes, sightseeing famous monuments, going on a guided tours and visiting churches, galleries or museums. Other big draw cards for visitors include Britain's diverse cities, the green rolling countryside and quaint picturesque villages. The number of parks and open, green space located within the cities are other things frequently mentioned by visitors. Tourists seem genuinely surprised to find them located within the busy metropolis and even more so that they're free.

British pubs are also very popular, and are seen to be a defining welcoming moment and a chance to feel part of authentic British life rather than be an outsider. Other major attractions are Britain's world renowned theatre and performing arts. These particular aspects of Britain's cultural offering are hugely appealing to visitors from English speaking and commonwealth countries as well as the visitors from the Nordics. The British welcome has been identified as an area of improvement for Britain especially given that the Olympic Games is fast approaching. Extensive research conducted in 2007 found that "welcome" is a broad and complex phenomenon and is actually driven by people's experiences of British culture, interactions with British people and Britain, the country itself.

Encouragingly, Britain's welcome is viewed quite positively by the US, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada (among others) but less so by our Latin friends. Actual visitor experiences of Brits found us to be friendly and helpful when approached, suggesting that visitors need to be educated about modern day Brits in that we are not people from a Dickensian era.

The food issue

British food is another issue that comes up time and time again. It is, however, incredibly subjective and varies by country. For example, are the French ever going to admit to liking British food despite many of their chefs flocking here because our cuisine is seen to be less restrictive? On the domestic front, there has been a real turn around over the past couple of years and food is no longer seen as bland or of inferior quality. To a large extent this has been helped by the advent of the farmers" markets and heavy marketing of regional and local produce.

Unsurprisingly, journalists and others regularly ask "what about the weather?" but research has shown that this can be a positive for Britain. In fact, many visitors actually welcome the opportunity to escape the climatic conditions of their own countries. For example, Indian visitors flock to Britain during the late spring to avoid the oppressive heat of the summer, South Africans relish the long summer evenings and visitors from warmer climates in the Southern Hemisphere love the idea of Christmas in the winter.

Perceptions of risk

Despite the increased hype about safety and security in the media and the heightened risk of a possible terrorist attack in London or another major British city, this does not appear to have had an adverse effect on perceptions of Britain. Most people tended to empathise with the situation as they too are facing similar issues within their own countries and, interestingly, only US and Chinese tourists seemed concerned about the risk of an attack while on holiday.

Research continues to help us understand what people want from a holiday and subsequent insights show us how we can meet their requirements. Qualitative research is used extensively to help VisitBritain develop this understanding, with the insights gained helping shape strategy in an increasingly competitive market.