Full steam ahead: Growing our visitor economy post-pandemic

David Bowe, Research Manager delves into recent tourism data.

David Bowe, Research Manager delves into recent tourism data.

New STEAM* figures have revealed the economic impact of tourism in the North East is up 37% on 2021. Tourism continues to be the fourth largest sector in the North East and is England’s third largest employer.

David Bowe, Research Manager at NGI, talks about the acceleration of tourism recovery post-pandemic and what these figures mean for the future growth of our visitor economy across the whole region.

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The North East of England is often referred to as an ‘untapped gem’ or a ‘hidden secret’. Yes, there can be an allure to this mysterious-sounding label, but how can we have an economic or social impact if no one knows we’re here?

The latest tourism data for the North East suggests that, since the pandemic, our visitor economy is recovering quicker than we may have expected with the economic impact of the sector in 2022 up by 37% on 2021 levels to now be worth £5.4 billion – once we factor in inflation, that’s the first time it’s exceeded £5 billion since 2019.

Although overall visitor numbers are up by 34% from 2021 at 65.6 million, they are still down 10% from 2019 when we welcomed 73 million people to the region, and we continue to have the lowest international visitor numbers and spend of any English region. This, coupled with high energy costs, inflation and the cost-of-living crisis which all hit the tourism industry hard just as it was recovering from Covid-19 can paint a disheartening picture as we compete with other destinations and other industries for consumer spend, but our growth potential is huge. And it’s not just us that thinks that.

Recognising our significant potential to unlock visitor economy growth, Destination North East England, the £2.25 million Destination Development Partnership was awarded to the North East by central Government in 2022. This is a tourism pilot to develop the visitor economy eco-system in the region and sustainably double the size of the industry in the next 10 years. This will put the North East in a prime position to drive visitor numbers, visitor spend and investment upwards.

We know that investment in the sector will drive visitor numbers and we’re continuing to see investment in the region with the likes of The Sage ICC, a £400 million conference centre and arena that is expected to bring an additional one million visitors to the region per year.

Other recent investments include:

  • The Tempus – a new quirky boutique hotel in Northumberland.
  • Dakota Hotel – a confirmed £35 million investment in a new hotel at St Ann’s Wharf in Newcastle.
  • Faith Museum – a museum exploring the ways in which faith has shaped lives and communities across Britain has announced it will open in County Durham this October.
  • Ad Gefrin – a family-run English Whiskey Distillery and visitor attraction in Northumberland.
  • Lilidorei – the world’s largest play structure has opened in The Alnwick Garden this year.

Our sector supports more than 58,000 jobs, with 14,000 more people being employed in the sector between 2021 and 2022, up 32% but still down 7% on pre-pandemic levels. Despite the acceleration of tourism recovery, figures show that the sector still employs 5,000 fewer people than in 2019. Addressing the skills gap and developing a pipeline of future talent will be critical to accelerating recovery and supporting the sector to achieve its growth potential.

Predictions show that by the end of 2023, despite the cost-of-living crisis and other challenges, the sector will be close to returning to pre-pandemic levels, supported by large scale regional events such as the Sam Fender and Pink bumper weekend, which brought in a combined £15 million to the local economy.

Our region’s strength lies and will lie in our collaborative spirit and utilising it when it matters most. Destination North East England seeks to grow the visitor economy on a regional level, with all seven local authorities working together to unlock its potential and develop a 10-year visitor economy strategy.

Without a doubt, the potential is here – majestic landscapes, 2,000 years of history, world-class restaurants, quirky accommodation and unique visitor experiences, the key is to co-ordinate the industry across the region, recognising that the visitor experience does not follow the borders or boundaries of local authorities and that each area of the region has its own unique strength to be harnessed.

By working together, we can support industry, attract more visitors, improve skills, create jobs, drive innovation, support business events and improve the accessibility and sustainability of the sector.


  • Tourism sector in the North East is worth £5.4bn, the first time it has exceeded £5bn since 2019. This is still down by 6% on pre-pandemic levels when factoring in inflation.
  • Tourism recovery from the pandemic has bounced quicker than expected, with a 37% increase in economic impact since 2021.
  • Across the North East, day visitor numbers are still down 11% from 2019 while overnight visitors are only down by 0.5% (overnight numbers are up slightly for Newcastle). Meaning overnight visitor numbers are almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Overall visitor numbers are up 34% from 2021 (65.6 million compared to 48.9 million) but down 10% from 2019 when we welcomed 73 million visitors.
  • Tourism in the North East supported 58,449 FTE jobs in 2022 – up 32% from 44,307 total employment in 2021 but still down 7% from 63,070 in 2019.
  • Visitor numbers to Northumberland are recovering the quickest with numbers reaching nearly 10 million, down 7% on 2019 compared to the regional figure which is down 10%.
  • Visit County Durham is celebrating the value of their visitor economy reaching over £1 billion for the first time.

Find out more about how the region will work together through Destination North East England here: https://destinationnortheastengland.co.uk/

*The figures are based on a tourism economic impact modelling process called STEAM (Scarborough Tourism Economic Assessment Model) that uses local supply-side data and visitor survey data.


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