Total visits to major free attractions in the UK rose by 92 per cent from 34.6 million in 2021 to 66.2 million last year, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva).
That is compared with just a 46 per cent increase from 37.9 million to 54 million for attractions with general admission charges.
The figures relate to 336 UK visitor attractions monitored by Alva in 2021 and 2022. The most visited in the West Midlands was the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, which enjoyed a big rise in visitors post-Covid.
Attingham Park near Shrewsbury attracted more than half a million visitors, although that was down 10 per cent on the year before. Free to enter RAF Cosford Museum saw its visitor numbers double to more than 380,000.
Among the paid-for attractions which saw visitor numbers fail to reach the average rise for free sites were Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, west London (no change), RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey (up six per cent), ZSL London Zoo, north-west London (up 51 per cent), Longleat, Wiltshire (up 16 per cent) and Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (up 35 per cent).
Alva director Bernard Donoghue said: “We’ve seen the cost-of-living crisis really have an impact on visitor numbers from about August of last year onwards.
“The British public are making tactical decisions about how they spend their leisure pounds and leisure hours. As a consequence, we’ve seen those free visitor attractions doing particularly well.”
The nine most popular UK attractions in 2022 were either free or only charged for special exhibitions and events. Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, had the most visits at 5.6 million, up four per cent on 2021.
That was followed by the Natural History Museum, west London, with 4.7 million visits, nearly three times higher than the year before.
Strikes by rail and London Underground workers limited the number of people visiting theatres.
Mr Donoghue said: “That particularly had an impact over Christmas where a lot of Christmas shows and pantos were affected by the series of strikes over the winter period.”
Each day of a rail or Tube strike costs London theatres an average of £42,000 due to lost revenue and the cost of providing transport and accommodation to cast and crew members, he added.
Mr Donoghue said membership of museums, galleries and zoos “remained really quite strong” last year, showing that many people are “prioritising day visits above things like TV subscriptions”.
Overall visits to all Alva attractions in 2022 increased by 69 per cent on the previous year, partly due to the UK’s coronavirus travel rules ending.
But total visits remained 23 per cent below the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
Mr Donoghue expects demand for attractions to continue to rise this year, partly due to the return of visitors from China.
“They’ve only just recently been allowed to travel overseas,” he said.
“When the Chinese market comes back – as I confidently predict it will this year – I think we’ll see a really, really strong growth.
“The top attractions for Chinese visitors are the Roman Baths in Bath, Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Warwickshire.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company – 672,487, +557 per cent
Attingham Park – 538,394, –10 per cent
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery – 409,784, N/A
RAF Cosford Museum – 382,831, +101 per cent
Cannock Chase Forest – 352,198, –16 per cent
National Memorial Arboretum – 299,344, +11 per cent
Wyre Forest – 297,335, –19 per cent
Shugborough – 256,236, +9 per cent
Thinktank Birmingham – 201,551, +133 per cent
Hanbury Hall and Garden – 199,039, +14 per cent
Blists Hill Victorian Town – 132,249, +27 per cent
Witley Court and Gardens – 65,527, –2 per cent
Enginuity – 36,602, +53 per cent
Iron Bridge & Toll House – 35,645, +56 per cent
Museum of the Gorge – 27,581, +40 per cent
Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron – 18,508, +59 per cent
Coalport China Museum – 13,279, +69 per cent
Jackfield Tile Museum – 11,820, +50 per cent