UAE, Poland, Croatia, Iceland and Romania the winners as Brits change their holiday habits

In the last 20 years, UK tourists have turned their backs on the traditional two-week summer sun holiday during the last week of July and first week of August in favour of short breaks and an increasing number of week-long trips. Even day breaks, dominated by the infamous one-day “booze cruises” across the Channel to France to stock up on cheaper alcohol and cigarettes, have become much less common than they used to be as low-cost airlines and enhanced global connectivity have opened up new opportunities.

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) study has looked to uncover the biggest differences in UK holiday habits between the 1990s and today comparing data from its International Passenger Survey in 1996 and 2016. In general it shows that people are going on more foreign holidays but they’re shorter than they used to be with people preferring seven to ten night stays rather than the 1990s fortnight favourite.

“Going abroad on holiday in the 1990s was very different,” says the ONS report. “Hardly anyone had access to the internet, so you probably booked your trip by going to a travel agent or finding a cheap package deal on Teletext. Once you arrived at your destination, clutching your guide book, film camera and travellers cheques, you were pretty incommunicado, unless you found a phone box or an internet café.”

Its findings shows that last year, 45 million holidays abroad were taken by Brits, compared to 27 million in 1996. This 68% growth far outweighs the 12% UK population rise during in the same period. Levels had grown steadily and peaked in 2008, ahead of the economic crash, when 45.5 million overseas holidays were taken and despite dipping to 36.2 million in 2012 have gradually risen again to that peak demand level.

CHART – Total number of holidays overseas by UK residents (1996 – 2016)Source: The Blue Swan Daily and ONS

A notable shift over the last 20 years is the marked decline in the popularity of two-week holidays and the rise of short breaks. The ONS data clearly highlights that people are now taking multiple week-long trips rather than booking the traditional fortnight break. There has been a massive rise in week long breaks over the period, while also a growth in ten-night holidays, buoyed by low-cost airline flights and traditional leisure airlines boosting flight frequencies to meet demand patterns.

CHART – Duration of holidays overseas by UK residents (1996 – 2016)Source: The Blue Swan Daily and ONS

There is still a loyalty to the traditional holiday destinations of Spain and France, Italy, Portugal, Greece etc with all these major markets except France seeing growth. The number of holidays to Spain has rocketed (up 87% in 20 years) and recent terrorism incidents in emerging markets in North Africa has seen people return to the comfort of a market they know. The 9% decline in visits to France can be partly explained by the significant reduction in ‘booze cruise’ traffic.

The availability of low-cost flights has also shifted people to further away destinations with the ONS data showing that the number of holidaymakers travelling by sea has declined by 33% since 1996, another reason perhaps for the declining numbers travelling into France.

Germany has now joined the top ten destinations for UK holidaymakers, and another new entry is cruising – which is now four times as popular as it was 20 years ago. “This could be due to an ageing population, with increasing numbers of older people in the population,” says the ONS report, but cruise operators are also trying to extend their appeal to younger holidaymakers too.

CHART – Top 10 destinations for UK resident holidaymakers (2016 vs 1996)Source: The Blue Swan Daily and ONS

Turkey, previously among the top ten markets, has slipped down the rankings due to its current political instability and alongside France are among only five countries with significant visitor numbers that suffered a decline in the numbers of holidaymakers between the two analysis dates. The countries that saw the biggest falls were those that have experienced terrorist incidents and security concerns in recent years: Turkey, Egypt, Kenya and Tunisia (the latter being part of a complete travel ban that has only just been lifted by the Foreign Office).

Outside of the major markets, significant growth has been seen between 1996 and 2016 in some emerging markets. Buoyed by the growth of Emirates Airline in the UK, United Arab Emirates (UAE) has seen a major surge in popularity with British holidaymakers, particularly in Dubai. After entry into the European Union in 2004, 2007 and 2013, Poland, Romania and Croatia have grown in popularity, driven by improved regional air links, political stability and a widening diaspora across the UK.

Iceland is also one of the hottest destination of recent years, with rising numbers this decade following its banking crisis of the late 2000s and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2010. Again, enhanced air connectivity has helped drive and is now facilitating growing demand into the northern European location.