Cities of Culture


Visit England publishes its latest data on Visits to Attractions. Tom Agar reflects on what it says about domestic tourism and the value of being a City of Culture.

Last week’s release of Visit England’s 2017 data on Visits to Attractions substantiated a number of hunches that those of us working with UK cultural attractions already had.

First, London had a hard year. A full 15 of London’s top 25 attractions – which account for more than 90% of visits to all of the surveyed attractions in London – saw visitor numbers fall from 2016 to 2017.  Strong performance by Tate Britain (+64%) and the V&A (+25%) was not enough to compensate for the vertiginous drop at places like The National Portrait Gallery (-35%), Museum of London (-20%), The Royal Academy (-18%) and the National Gallery (-17%).  Even ‘must visit’ London mainstays, like the British Museum, Tate Modern and London Zoo all saw visitor numbers fall from 2016 to 2017 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1

As the overseas market continues to grow in London (now buoyed by a favourable exchange rate for visiting tourists), it is likely that this decline is down to the leveling-off of domestic visits – a market that has failed to grow for almost 5 years running.

It begs the question: if domestic tourists aren’t going to London, then where are they going?

Some of them are clearly going to Yorkshire – or, more specifically, to Hull.  Hull was the UK City of Culture in 2017 and post hoc evaluations by the University of Hull proudly boast of a 13% surge in tourist visits last year. While these claims can sometimes be dismissed as the biased bravado of a place-marketing drive, the latest attractions data appears to support this.  Visitor attractions in Hull do appear to have seen significant increases in attendance in 2017.

Some of these are free admission attractions that are distorted by ‘pop-in’ visits by people that are drawn to the area by some major event (e.g. the Maritime Museum was likely boosted by its Weeping Window display and the fact that Nayan Kulkarni’s Blade was installed right outside the front door).  It is telling, however, that The Deep, a charging aquarium and Hull’s signature attraction, reported a 13% increase in visits, which exactly conforms to University of Hull’s estimated increase in tourism (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

The sceptics among us could legitimately argue that these numbers are unsurprising, or even that they should be expected. After investing some £220 million in cultural product and programming, a bump in tourism is the least that a City of Culture should expect.  The key question is how sustainable this is when everything goes back to normal. Was this just an ephemeral moment for Hull or is the City of Culture initiative capable of producing real and lasting change?

Evidence from elsewhere gives good reason to believe that it could be the latter. The UK’s previous City of Culture, Londonderry, had a similarly successful year in 2013, with record numbers of visitors, events and investment. And while visit numbers dipped in the following years, 2016 saw tourism hit a new peak. With new hotels, bars and restaurants opening and large infrastructure projects complete, Derry appears to have generated a lasting cultural legacy that continues to have an impact.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Similar step-change effects have been experienced by cities across Europe after they were designated European Capital of Culture.  Indeed, since the early 2000s, the European Commission has explicitly sought to use the designation as a catalyst for investment and place-marketing that might bring longer-term benefits to a city than just a one-year tourist bonanza.  In that respect, it has always been more of an ‘incentive’ for cities that could be capitals of culture than a ‘reward’ for cities that already are.

Since this change of tack in 2004, European Cities of Culture have always been varied and sometimes surprising: Cork (Ireland) in 2005, Sibiu (Romania) in 2007, Kosice (Slovakia) in 2013, Wroclaw (Poland) in 2016, and Leeuwarden (Netherlands) in 2018.

This approach to ‘cities of culture’ has worked in Liverpool and Derry and – as every new data point suggests – probably in Hull too. With UK cities unlikely to be eligible for European Capital of Culture status after Brexit, the UK City of Culture label will become more important.

Over to you, Coventry.


Image Credit: Jonathan Shaw, 2018