In the last 20 years, UK tourists have turned their backs on traditional 2-week holidays in favour of short breaks and week-long trips. And one-day "booze cruises" across the Channel to stock up on alcohol and cigarettes are much less common than they used to be.
Going abroad on holiday in the 1990s was very different. 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 cafe.
We looked at data from our International Passenger Survey in 1996 and 2016 to uncover the biggest differences in our holiday habits between the 1990s and now.
We’re going on more holidays…
In 2016, UK residents went on more than 45 million foreign holidays, up from 27 million in 1996. That’s a 68% rise in the number of holidays, while the UK population increased by 12% in the same period.
Total number of holidays overseas by UK residents, 1996 to 2016
…but they’re shorter than they used to be
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the last 20 years is the marked decline in the popularity of 2-week holidays and the rise of short breaks.
The week-long break is a lot more popular than before, and there’s also been an increase in the number of holidays lasting 10 nights.
UK residents are making far fewer day-trips abroad than they did 20 years ago. This could be because many of these visits were “booze cruises” – journeys across the English Channel to stock up on alcohol and cigarettes – which are no longer as cost-efficient as they used to be. Duty-free sales within the EU ended in 1999, France has been ratcheting up the price of cigarettes since 2000, and in recent years the pound has fallen in value against the euro.
Duration of holidays overseas by UK residents, 1996 and 2016
No-frills airlines have taken off
One of the most likely explanations for UK residents going on more, shorter, holidays is the growth of the budget airlines.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the European Council relaxed the rules to create a common aviation area across Europe, allowing low-cost carriers including EasyJet and Ryanair to enter the market.
Between 1996 and 2015 (the most recent figures available from the Civil Aviation Authority), passenger numbers at UK airports increased by 85%, from 135 million to 251 million – continuing a long-term trend. And according to the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation in 2003, “around 50% of the traffic on low-cost carriers is newly generated” – which means half of the people flying on budget airlines in Europe weren’t making those journeys before.
Top 10 destinations for UK holidaymakers
Comparing the most popular holiday destinations in 1996 and 2016, not a lot has changed at the top of the chart: we still love visiting Spain and France.
However, while the number of holidays to Spain has rocketed (up 87% in 20 years), France is one of the few countries we’re visiting less than we were in 1996: the number of holidays by UK residents has fallen by 9%.
Budget airlines may be behind this too: rather than driving to France on a ferry (the number of holidaymakers travelling by sea has declined by 33% since 1996), tourists are perhaps opting for a cheap flight elsewhere instead.
Germany has now joined the top 10 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 – but cruise operators are also trying to extend their appeal to younger holidaymakers too.
Two destinations that have dropped out of the top 10 since 1996 are Belgium and Turkey.
Top 10 destinations for UK resident holidaymakers, 2016 (with 1996 figures)
Outside the top 10
Further down the rankings, we can look at some countries that have become a lot more popular with UK resident holidaymakers since 1996.
Number of holidays by UK residents, selected countries, 1996 and 2016
The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) popularity with British holidaymakers is especially striking. It’s largely due to the popularity of Dubai, where the UAE has invested heavily in hotels and shopping malls, and has been rewarded with ever-greater numbers of British tourists.
Poland and Romania have joined the EU in the intervening years (in 2004 and 2007 respectively), and Romanian nationals gained full rights to work in the UK in 2014. This made travel between the countries much simpler. In 2016 many of the UK resident holidaymakers were nationals of the countries they visited (69% of those visiting Romania for holidays were Romanian and 31% of those going to Poland were Polish), perhaps returning to spend the holidays with family and friends.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013, and the dramatic rise in visitor numbers partially reflects the emergence of the country from the Balkans War, which only ended in late 1995.
Iceland’s newfound popularity is less straightforward to explain – the rise in the numbers of UK holidaymakers began around 2010, just 2 years after the economic crisis devalued the Icelandic krona, making the country much more affordable for foreign tourists.
2010 was also the year that the volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted, sending clouds of ash into the skies above Europe and grounding planes across the world, and some think that the TV pictures of Iceland shown around the globe encouraged visitors to go there. “Secret to Iceland’s Tourism Boom? A Financial Crash and a Volcanic Eruption” read the headline in the New York Times.
Only five countries with significant visitor numbers suffered a decline in the numbers of holidaymakers. Besides France (see "Top 10 destinations for UK holidaymakers" section), 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.