UK tourism industry body VisitBritain estimated last year that some 30 million visitors came to Britain from overseas, an increase of 8% on 2004. These visitors spent £14.2b, an increase of 9%.
The majority of this growth, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, was down to double-digit growth from the "rest of world" region (including China, India, Eastern European and South-east Asian countries), where visits rose by 18% to 6.4 million.
Yet, at the same time, while the amount of time international visitors spend on a visit to the UK has remained constant over the past five years (eight days on average), the amount of money they spent has steadily fallen, by 7.3% (to £466) since a high of £503 in 2000, estimates VisitBritain.
Overnight stays by UK visitors were worth £24.4b in 2004, according to the British Hospitality Association (BHA), with spending by overseas visitors worth £13.1b.
Spending on accommodation as a percentage of the domestic tourist's visit has remained fairly constant for the past few years, hovering around the 30% mark, adds the BHA.
VisitBritain's statistics suggest overseas visitor numbers are at a record high, yet for the hospitality trade there are distinct challenges.
Between 1985 and 2004, the length of stay has dropped from 11.5 to 8.5 nights, as has spend, slumping from nearly £700 per visitor in 1985 to just £450 by 2004.
At the same time, the number of UK residents holidaying abroad has risen inexorably to create a near £18b imbalance in 2005. Just as worrying, according to VisitBritain's own statistics, for every £1 an overseas visitor spends in the UK, UK residents spend £2.32 overseas.
Looking at the country as a whole, the market is distinctly patchy, says BHA chief executive Bob Cotton.
Within London, the market is doing well, partly because hoteliers and restaurateurs are being underpinned by a lot of corporate visitors and the health of activity within the Square Mile.
The domestic corporate market at the moment is also looking relatively flat - with organisations pulling in their horns a little, perhaps doing two instead of three-day conferences.
Yet the market for weekend leisure breaks is looking relatively strong. Research in May by travel agent Thomas Cook, for instance, concluded that British tourists are booking weekend breaks and short trips in addition to, rather than at the expense of, longer package holidays.
Financially, one key trend emerging, argues Jeremy Brinkman, general manager, quality at VisitBritain, is the changing face of who is coming to these shores, and how the hospitality industry responds.
Tourism levels, even after last year's terrorism attacks, are now back to pre-9/11 levels, yet the US market has never returned to its pre-9/11 dominance.
"The USA is still the single most important market, but there are more markets in the mix now. Europe is still the engine room but there are other markets developing within Europe, including eastern Europe and, further afield, such as Russia, Asia and the Far East," he explains.
"India and China, although their numbers are not significant yet, the forecasts are that they will be," he adds, with numbers from China in particular rising by 41% in 2004
The perception of Great Britain as a market is also changing, with the UK becoming more of an expensive, quality destination than it once was, he forecasts.
And while London remains the hub, low-cost flights to and from regional centres such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow and Cardiff are opening up these areas to more tourism and leisure, both domestic and in-bound.
"Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham have all invested a lot in their infrastructure. Liverpool becoming capital of culture in 2008 will also help. More and more cities are having major cultural festivals or winning quality sporting events," says Brinkman.
The rise of the internet has transformed the market and become, for many, the mainstream way of booking holidays, travel and accommodation, he adds.
"Terrorism, particularly within London, is always going to be something the industry is afraid about," says Ashley de Safrin, tourism and hospitality account manager at Business Link for London.
Among other potential economic "shocks" that could have a serious impact on the sector is a bird flu pandemic.
The strength of the pound remains another concern, although the fact the market is less reliant than it perhaps once was on the American dollar means there is still potential for growth, argues the BHA's Cotton. "It is perceived at the moment to be expensive to come to Britain," he concedes.
Along with the continuing rises in wage costs, the biggest financial headache on the horizon for the trade is rocketing energy prices, he argues.
"Wages have gone up around 5-7% year-on-year, but we have seen energy prices go up by around 50% in the past year. Those are the two big factors that are worrying businesses," he says.
"What it means is that you are having to increase your top line income by 5% just to stand still. It is also difficult because it is a world problem, and so hard to control or react to, and it has a disproportionate effect on smaller businesses, of which there of course a lot in hospitality.
"Bigger businesses can often find ways more easily to make efficiency savings than smaller ones and they cannot buy the better terms that bigger names sometimes can," says Cotton.
Skills shortages are another ongoing area that needs to be tackled, suggests VisitBritain's Brinkman. "We need to be making sure that people aspire to want to work within the sector, that is the biggest challenge, and it will not be addressed quickly," he says.
Just as important is the issue of attracting more disabled and elderly visitors and workers.
Earlier this year, VisitBritain suggested elderly and disabled people were a hugely untapped part of the market, accounting for some 20 million potential consumers.
The organisation has been developing a registration system for accommodation that has been quality assessed as being accessible for people with sensory or mobility impairments.
Then there is the emotive issue of a "bed tax". Hoteliers and Caterer, have been running a high-profile campaign against a 5% to 10% tax on hotel bedrooms - one of the suggestions being made by the Government's efficiency guru Sir Michael Lyons in his review of local Government funding.
Finally, there is the 2012 Olympics. While the games are expected to bring a welcome fillip to the market, little effect is expected (and certainly no promotional activity is allowed) until after the Beijing games in 2008.
"There will be an Olympic effect, but not before then," stresses Cotton.
Overseas visitors to the UK (000s)
|Spend (£m)||12,805||- 11,306||11,737||11,855||13.100|
UK domestic tourism expenditure (£m)
Source: BHA Trends and Statistics 2005