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Brexit ban on European ID cards is a ‘disastrous act of economic self-harm’, says tourism boss

With visitor numbers to leading UK tourist attractions struggling since the pandemic, a tourism leader has put part of the blame on Britain’s ban on Europeans travelling on ID cards.

After Brexit, the UK banned EU citizens from making business or leisure trips with their national identity cards. More than 200 million potential visitors from Europe have ID cards but not passports.

The government’s central forecast in its impact assessment is that the UK would lose 890,000 visits by European citizens each year, with a financial loss of £590m.

Bernard Donoghue, director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva), described the decision as “illogical”.

He told The Independent: “We thought that was a disastrous act of economic self-harm.”

The UK’s top tourist attractions are still well below pre-Covid visitor numbers. Mr Donoghue – who is also the mayor of London’s ambassador for cultural tourism – said: “We’re down about 11 per cent compared to 2019.

“The biggest missing group are the Chinese. They came out of lockdown last. They’ve been prioritising travelling within China and within East Asia first, but are starting to come back to the UK.

“We’re hopeful that we should get back up to pre-Covid levels of Chinese visitors by the end of 2025.”

But he said the ID card ban is also causing harm to the UK inbound tourism industry.

“It had nothing to do with immigration,” the Alva director said.

“It just felt illogical. Our English-language schools here in the UK have been suffering. They’ve been missing out on both customers and money for the last three years.”

The main beneficiaries of the UK imposing extra red tape on prospective language students are Ireland, Malta and the United States.

“It really has affected the visitor economy here in the UK,” Mr Donoghue said.

The Institute of Tourist Guiding reported an almost total collapse of school group bookings after Brexit and Covid. Compared with 2019 they were 99 per cent down.

In 2022, Patricia Yates, chief executive of VisitBritain, told MPs: “You will find destinations like Hastings absolutely decimated by a lack of school visits.”

.A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of cultural and educational exchanges between the UK and other nations.

“Last year, the prime minister committed to ease the travel of school groups to the UK by making changes to documentary requirements to make it easier for schoolchildren on organised trips from France.”

In December 2023 the Home Office U-turned in the case of parties of children from French schools. They are now allowed to visit the UK using ID cards once again, rather than every child having to have a passport.

The government spokesperson said: “We would consider negotiating with other countries in the context of wider discussions on migration issues.”

Talks are understood to have taken place between senior UK tourism figures and opposition politicians on the prospect of widening exemptions swiftly were a Labour government to be elected.

Mr Donoghue also described Rishi Sunak’s decision to abolish tax-free shopping as “another act of economic self-harm”.

The Alva director said: “It means that overseas visitors are just spending less time here.

“They’ll leave on day four of seven and go to Paris or Milan or Rome and do their shopping there.”

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimated in 2020 that the government would save around £400m a year by withdrawing the VAT refund scheme.

The number of tourists was predicted to drop between 20,000 and 30,000 annually as a result of the move.

“This would reduce the withdrawal-related revenue by about one quarter,” said the OBR.

Listen to Simon Calder’s travel podcast with Bernard Donaghue on the state of UK tourism