The British invented organised tourism in the 18th century. The Grand Tour was tourism for aristocratic young men. They were supposed to expose themselves to European influences and culture before settling down. Many young aristocrats brought European architectural ideas back to Britain, which they used when they modernised their stately homes. There was also heavy investment in art and sculpture as evidence of their tour. It was elite tourism. It was quite unlike tourism in the 21st century, which is an industry. But the objectives are broadly similar. Modern tourists revere ‘unique’ experiences in exotic locations. There have been massive increases in global disposable wealth. Aspirations are now achievable through reductions in travel and accommodation costs. This has led to an extraordinary increase in the numbers of international tourists. Finite exotica, global tourism and co-existence are at breaking point.
The London tourist industry1 is very important as a provider of employment and as a magnetic for foreign tourists. The top ten attractions indicate this clearly.
1) The British Museum: 6.8M visitors in 2015. It was built in 1753 and has more-or-less the same physical footprint now, though there has been some remodelling. The next nine destinations show only numbers of visitors and establishment date.
2) The National Gallery: 5.9M; 1824
3) National History Museum: 5.3M; 1881
4) Southbank Centre: 5.1M; 1951
5) Tate Modern: 4.7M; 1992
6) Victoria and Albert Museum: 3.4M; 1852
7) Science Museum: 3.4M; 1857
8) Somerset House: 3.2M; 2003
9) Tower of London: 2.8M; 1078
10) National Portrait Gallery: 2.1M; 1856
Six of the ten predate the 20th century with only one built as a tourist destination- the Southbank Centre. The Southbank Centre includes the Heywood Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Centre and the Royal Festival Hall. There is also an art house cinema and numerous restaurants and so probably doesn’t have a global destination feel to it like others in the list.
Most of these establishments were built for the British; they’ve become world destinations. They were glorious magnificent buildings in relation to the population2 at that time. The British Museum was established in 1753 when London’s population was about 0.75 million. Global tourism means that tourist throughput is now nine times the total population of London when it was built. This magnificent spacious building was meant to create a leisurely cultural activity glorying in world historical artefacts. The medieval Tower of London was built as an intimidating castle defending London. The British population was about two million in 1066 and is now really quite tiny in relation to the nearly three million tourists who traipse through there annually.
The government has created a body to further promote tourist travel to Britain and they extrapolate figures for the next ten plus years4 there’s a pious hope that non-London destinations will emerge to take pressure off the ‘top ten’. This is unlikely.
British tourist destinations are London centric. They are iconic in global culture; part of the must-see for those with aspirations and disposable wealth. Tourism in a world of finite destinations means that regardless of the hopes of tourism managers each destination will become tawdry. Or as Joni Mitchell brilliantly put it Big Yellow Taxi
They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
1 See for the top British tourist attractions to understand the overwhelming pre-eminence of London https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/most-popular-attractions-in-britain-in-2016/
2 For a quick over-view see http://www.tacitus.nu/historical-atlas/population/british.htm
For a pre-census (the first one was 1801) estimate see https://1841census.co.uk/1570-1750-estimated-population/ And for estimates of London’s population see https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Population-history-of-london.jsp#a1715-1760
where London had about 0.75M population in 1750 when the British Museum was built.
3 For an analysis of tourism both into and out of Britain see https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/leisureandtourism/articles/traveltrends/2017 and for its importance to the British economy see https://www.visitbritain.org/visitor-economy-facts
4 There is a forecast of 4.4% tourist growth in 2018 see https://www.visitbritain.org/forecast