Written evidence submitted by the British Council



1.         What needs to be done to re-establish the UK as a holiday destination for international travellers?

1.1         Global trends: The British Council’s Global Perceptions Survey[1] of young people from across the G20 group of nations reveals a long-term, negative trend in visits to the UK. A more concerning finding is the dramatic reduction in intentions to visit the UK over the same period. These trends pre-date COVID with the steepest fall in intentions happening between 2016 and 2018.


1.2         This trend is not unique to the UK: intentions to travel internationally have been changing with greater interest in travelling within a region, such as the Indo-Pacific, and less interest in transcontinental travel. This has seen declining interest in transcontinental visits to the USA, and other Western nations, while Japan is becoming more attractive to people from China, Indonesia and South Korea.

1.3         Despite the decline in intentions to visit the UK, the UKs scoring in terms of attractiveness as a tourist destination has remained relatively stable[2] . It is now considered the 5th most attractive country to visit as a tourist in the G20. This suggests that the UK’s appeal remains strong and that other factors are coming into play. These could be growing appeal of destinations offering new and different experiences as well as the impact of increased awareness of the environmental costs of long-haul travel.

1.4         Soft power: Declining interest in visiting the UK could weaken the nation’s soft power. Spending time in the UK, whether as a tourist or as a student or for business has a significant, positive impact on perceptions of the UK. People who have visited the UK are on average +15% more positive in how they rate the UK across a range of indicators that drive trust in the people and government of the UK, including perceptions of the UK’s contribution to foreign aid, the quality of UK universities and UK culture, and the freedoms enjoyed by the people of the UK.

1.5         This is a virtuous cycle: those who have visited the UK find it more attractive and trustworthy and are more inclined to want to interact with the UK[3], including through further visits.[4] If people are not visiting, that cycle can swing into reverse, resulting in lower levels of trust and attractiveness and declining interest in engaging with the UK, with significant negative implications for the UK’s economy and international influence.

1.6         Visit drivers: The same data shows that intention to visit a country generally corresponds to perceptions of the country’s arts and cultural institutions; sports teams and events; universities/research and its status as a global power.

1.7         For the UK, the two strongest indicators of visit intention are whether the respondent perceives the UK to have ’world-leading universities and ‘world-leading arts and culture’, with ‘world-leading sports’ third most significant indicator. Physical and cultural proximity are also important: intentions to visit the UK are highest in other English-speaking G20 countries (Australia, Canada, South Africa) and those that are geographically close (Germany, Italy).

1.8         Cultural relations institutions such as the British Council exist to build trust and connections between the UK and the rest of the world. Through its programmes in arts, education and English, the British Council creates opportunities for people to engage with the UK and its culture and education assets, ultimately making it a more attractive place to visit, study in or do business with.

1.9         By bringing the UK to the world, the British Council increases trust in the UK and interest in engaging with the UK. Those that have engaged with the British Council trust the UK government +15% than the average. They are also significantly more likely to rate the UK as attractive and to want to engage with the UK across a range of metrics. By fostering the networks and connections that build trust, the British Council makes an important contribution to the success of the UK tourism, cultural and education sectors, as well as the wider economy.

2.         What should the UK be doing to maintain its status as a ‘soft power superpower’ and further promote its culture and heritage on the global stage?

2.1         The UK’s status as a soft power superpower depends on a complex array of cultural, economic and societal factors. Some of these are under the direct control of government but many are not. Core to the UK’s appeal is that it is a wealthy, liberal, capitalist democracy. That it is a diverse, open and welcoming country with robust, independent institutions that uphold the freedoms the British people all too often take for granted but which are the envy – and a role model - for those living under the yoke of more authoritarian countries. To secure the UK’s status as a soft power superpower the government – and Parliamentmust strive to act, and be seen to act, in accordance with the liberal, democratic values that are closely associated with the UK.

2.2         However, much of what underpins the UK’s status as a soft power superpower lies outside the direct ambit of government. The UK’s culture, language and higher education institutions - our museums, theatres, libraries, a free press, and our universities and research institutes - are hugely important contributors to the country’s global appeal. Witness, for example, the thousands that every year visit a remote corner of Lochaber just to see ‘the Hogwarts Express’ pass over the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

2.3         Government can foster an enabling environment that nurtures and protects our vital institutions that contribute so much to the UK’s global attractiveness. This not only means funding for science and the arts but support for vital collaboration between British and international researchers, artists, activists and entrepreneurs. Growing the social capital of connection and networks is as important to the UK’s status as direct financial investment.

2.4         A whole of UK approach: The UK should prioritise engagement that also promotes and increases awareness of the rich culture and heritage outside of London. British Council commissioned research shows that while familiarity with all parts of the UK has risen between 2016 – 2021, there remain significant discrepancies between familiarity with London and familiarity with the UK’s constituent regions and nations.

2.5         This is also reflected in visitor patterns: over 80% of overseas visitors to the UK have been to London, whereas less than half have visited somewhere in England outside of London and less than a quarter have visited Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Internationally networked, UK-wide organisations like the British Council are best placed to support and enable the UK’s nations and regions to make connections overseas and to ensure their strengths can be best combined and projected internationally.

2.6         With offices in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester, the British Council has a track record of working with practitioners and partners to share the full diversity of the UK overseas. From a decades-long partnership with Belfast International Arts Festival, - celebrating its 60th edition next year - to the India-Wales digital festival which took place during Diwali 2020 despite pandemic restrictions, the organisation represents the complex mosaic that is contemporary Britain overseas, sending a positive message about its diverse cultural and heritage assets.

3.        How can the UK capitalise on its exit from the European Union?

3.1         Indo-Pacific engagement: Following departure from the European Union, the UK Government has laid an increased focus on other geographies, notably the Indo-Pacific, as a new theatre for trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. This focus recognises the growing geopolitical and economic power of the region and the opportunities this brings for UK soft power and engagement. However, there is still more the UK could do to strengthen cultural connections in the region and extend its reach. New British Council research shows that young people in the ASEAN nations see Japan and South Korea as the most culturally attractive overseas countries, with only 6 per cent of all survey respondents naming the UK as the most attractive. While there was slight variation in responses from the different ASEAN nations, the UK was always well behind the leading Asian countries.

3.2         Most people across the ASEAN region did not have strong impressions of UK culture and entertainment media and had little knowledge of British innovation. This is significant because the same research showed strong links between interest in a country’s culture and preference towards that country as study destination, travel destination or business partner. Supporting cultural and educational exchange is one way the UK can improve perceptions and increase engagement with the UK.



i.                              What are the biggest threats to the status of ‘soft power superpower’?

3.3         Increasing competition: The 2021 survey of people in G20 shows that the UK retains its status as the most attractive country in the world for the second year in a row. However, competition at the top is tighter than ever, with the UK now sharing first place with Italy and very little that separates the other top-ranking countries.

3.4         The soft power landscape is changing. There has been a significant increase in the physical presence and levels of investment in cultural institutes and soft power activity globally. Nations like France, Germany, Russia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and China have been investing more as a proportion of GDP and population than the UK in projecting themselves internationally. Systemic competitors like Russia and China have massively expanded the footprint of their cultural institutes, while other states such as Brazil, South Korea, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also increasing their presence in other countries.

3.5         There is a very real risk that complacency could see the UK fall behind, losing the advantages in terms of influence and attraction that have come from its soft power edge over its rivals. These threats are significant – but so is the demand from millions of people worldwide, particularly young people, to develop skills and connect with people in other countries and cultures.  As the UK’s organisation for cultural relations, the British Council connects the UK’s recognised assets in arts and culture, high quality education, and the English language with the rest of the world, to ensure that the UK retains its influence as this systemic competition to control narratives grows.

3.6         As a result of the severe financial impact of the pandemic, the British Council will stop spending Grant-in-Aid funding in 11 countries and deliver Grant-in-Aid programming through offices in other countries in a further nine. Further reductions to the British Council’s global network and reach could see the UK fall behind other countries – some friendly, some less so – in the global competition for attraction, damaging its status as a soft power superpower.

January 22


[1] https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/global_perceptions_survey_2021.pdf

[2] 22% of respondents scoring it 6-10 for attractiveness (the same rating as 2020 but lower than the 24% rating given in both 2018 and 2016)

[3] Including study at a UK university, doing business/trade with the UK or simply consuming UK arts and culture.

[4] https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/the_value_of_trust.pdf