Visit England report: sharp drop in visitor numbers to churches and cathedrals

18 August 2017

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Declining: Westminster Abbey, which has seen the steepest drop in visitor numbers in recent years

Declining: Westminster Abbey, which has seen the steepest drop in visitor numbers in recent years

VISITOR numbers at churches and cathedrals fell significantly last year, “largely driven” by a drop in visitors to St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, a report by Visit England states.

The report Visitor Attraction Trends in England 2016, published last week, recorded a two-per-cent rise in the number of visitors to English sites in general in 2016 compared with 2015. But the number of visitors to places of worship dropped by eight per cent.

The sharp drop came as a surprise: between 2014 and 2015 there was a decline of less than one per cent in visitors to the cathedrals and churches monitored by Visit England.

No single reason has emerged as to why churches and cathedrals could be struggling to attract visitors. The fear of terrorism, rising entry fees, a post-London Olympics lull, and different ways of counting have all been suggested.

The decline is also reflected in the accounts: places of worship were the attractions in the Visit England report to report a fall in gross revenue, one per cent down on the previous 12 months.

“The fall in admissions for places of worship was largely driven by a few big sites based in London,” the Visit England report states.

Westminster Abbey has experienced particular decline in visitor numbers in recent years. In 2013, helped by the Olympics, the Abbey welcomed more than two million visitors. By 2016, that figure had almost halved to 1.2 million, a 28-per-cent drop from 2015.

St Paul’s Cathedral was also hit. In 2013, it had 2.1 million visitors, but in 2016 the number was 1.5 million. Between 2015 and 2016, visitor numbers dropped by 5.6 per cent.

Large falls were also seen elsewhere. Visitor numbers at Leicester Cathedral plunged by 29 per cent from 2015 to 2016; Guildford Cathedral welcomed 30-per-cent fewer visitors; and Rochester Cathedral reported an 11-per-cent decline.

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The head of communications at Westminster Abbey, Duncan Jeffery, declined to comment on Visit England’s figures. But he said that the numbers for this year were “very buoyant”, running ahead of schedule and would very likely top one million.

“The Abbey is more than able to finance its ministry and mission,” he said. “At the same time, the Abbey church is full for its weekday and Sunday services — for which, of course, there is never any charge.”

The Registrar at St Paul’s, Emma Davies, said that the visitor numbers for St Paul’s included both paying tourists and worshippers at services.

“[Last year’s] downturn was due to a change in the way in which we reported the number of worshippers and aligning this reporting more closely with other reports that we provide,” she said. “In fact, we were fortunate that last year, the number of paying visitors was broadly comparable with numbers in 2015. We have been fortunate to have been able to maintain our prices for the past couple of years and, therefore, the level of our admissions income.”

The decline in paying guests since 2013 was, in part, a return to normality after the post-Olympics spike in London, Ms Davies said. This is borne out by the Visit England report, which shows that London was the only region to see a fall in visitor numbers last year, of one per cent; it also saw a three-per-cent drop in 2015.

Leicester Cathedral was always likely to show a decline after the huge interest in the freshly reinterred remains of Richard III; but others with no Olympic hangover or recently reburied monarch have also seen large falls, such as Guildford and Rochester.

The steepest decline was at places of worship that charge for entry, the Visit England report states. Those that are free to visitors saw a decline in tourism of one per cent, whereas those that charge saw a 12-per-cent drop.

The average price of a ticket to visit a place of worship was £10.17, up 18 per cent on 2015. These figures are derived from a small sample, however — less than ten of the 61 places of worship included in the Visit England report charge a fee.

It currently costs £22 to buy an adult ticket to visit Westminster Abbey, and £18 for St Paul’s. The National Churches Trust, which promotes and supports church buildings, wrote on its blog that the Visit England findings should prompt churches and cathedrals to question if admission fees were too high.

“Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s and Canterbury Cathedral are still all in the top 20 of paid visitor attractions. However, as visits to free-entry places of worship only declined by one per cent, are admission charges putting people off visiting cathedrals?”

Guildford and Rochester, like almost all cathedrals in England, do not charge for entry, however.

Another possible explanation was that the increased risk of terrorism in cities and public places was deterring visitors. The executive director of the Association of English Cathedrals, Sarah King, thought that terrorism was having some effect. “Pricing might explain Westminster Abbey, but it certainly wouldn’t explain the other cathedrals,” she said.

Bernard Donoghue, the director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which includes the most popular cathedrals, said his organisation had noticed a fall in central London attractions last year, which he put down to “security and terrorism” issues.

However, a recent survey had showed that many of his members, including Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, were seeing large increases in visitor numbers in 2017, which was partly because of the weakness of the pound encouraging more overseas tourists to London.

Other cathedrals in York, Durham, and Canterbury were also seeing a general increase in numbers, Mr Donoghue said.

St Paul’s was the sixth most visited paid-for attraction in England in 2016, and Westminster Abbey came in in tenth place. Canterbury Cathedral, which welcomed 903,000 visitors, was the 19th most popular.

There was also some strong growth among some of the smaller cathedrals. Southwell Minster reported a 24-per-cent rise in visitors in 2016. Its chief steward, Shaun Boney, said that he wished he could say why this rise had occurred but could not offer a neat explanation. Only in April this year had they introduced a system that could count visitors separately to staff, worshippers, and others who enter the Minster; so the rise in figures in 2016 could not be put down exclusively to better marketing or events, he said.

“There are certainly things that have been happening,” he said. “We have had a total refurbishment of the State Chamber at the Archbishop of York’s summer palace, and we have also got a major classical music festival here, which is getting bigger every August.”

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