UK government ‘should simplify visas’ to aid West End’s return

A speedy post-pandemic recovery is being predicted for London’s West End retail district, but the organisation representing businesses in the area is calling on the UK government to simplify visas, ease Sunday shopping rules and reintroduce tax free shopping to increase visitor spending.

Property consultant Colliers has forecast that turnover will reach £8.6 billion within the next 12 months in a report commissioned by the New West End Company, which represents 600 retail, restaurant, hotel and property owners in the West End.

The findings also envisage that the West End’s historic annual turnover of £10 billion will be achieved within the next two years, and by 2025 will be 14%, or another £1.4 billion higher.

Turnover in the district recovered sharply last year with a 30% increase on 2020’s pandemic-afflicted figure but it only attained 46% of its pre-health crisis figure.

Absence of international travellers ‘a challenge’

Domestic generated sales are expected to exceed 2019’s figures within the next 12 months and the New West End Company said that despite UK visitors’ confident return to the high street, the continued absence of high spending international travellers is a challenge.

The absence of overseas shoppers is most apparent on Regent Street, Bond Street and Mayfair where 2021 sales were only 33% of those achieved in 2019.

“Nearly two years on from the start of the pandemic and the road ahead for the West End looks promising with the long-anticipated opening of the £19 billion Elizabeth Line set to turbo charge our recovery,” said Jace Tyrrell, New West End Company’s chief executive.

“Whilst it is heartening to see domestic customers filling our high streets with optimism once again and travel restrictions gradually disappearing, we can speed up the nation’s recovery greatly by incentivising high spending tourists to return to our shores.”

Paddy Gamble, co-head of retail strategy at Colliers explained that data has highlighted how the mix of shopper groups and origin of footfall has meant that recovery in 2021 was not equal across all parts of the West End. Areas which attract greater levels of domestic trade recovered fastest he explained.

New West End Company said the UK’s visitor visa system has fallen behind those offered by competing destinations such as Paris and Milan. Also, tax-free shopping was abolished last year which gave other major world cities a 20% price advantage over the UK.

Furthermore, it says international shoppers “are often disappointed to find that stores are forced to close by 6pm on a Sunday”. Catering to weekend city-break shoppers would generate an additional £250 million pa sales at no extra cost, it contends.

 “We’re in good stead to build back better, but we must clear a path if we want tourists – who generate an estimated £237 billion across the UK every year and support one in eight London jobs – to flock back to our high streets,” Tyrrell added.