Social tourism in the UK – a short history


Social tourism, as a term, is not well known in the UK and is even less understood. 

But actually helping people access a break is a long-established practice here; indeed, a recent on-line social tourism survey carried out by the University of Nottingham and the University of Exeter of the not-for-profit sector in England and Wales alone showed that upwards of 600 registered charities provided, as part of the help they offer to people, support with breaks and day trips.

“To give children a holiday in the country does not at once fit them to become either useful workers and desirable members of the community or healthy parents of a new generation, but it affords an admirable stimulus to all manifestations of their physical and moral progress.” The Lancet[1] June 1907

From the Industrial Revolution and well into the first part of last century, the more benevolent factory owners organised holidays for their employees and, even today, some employer and trade union schemes still exist. However, there is no equivalent to be found here in the UK to compare to the social tourism facilities and structures common in mainland Europe.

Perhaps one exception may be the youth hostel movement.  The Youth Hostel Association of England and Wales and the Scottish YHA operate 150 and 60 hostels respectively.  They provide access to low cost accommodation in both cities and countryside and, in recent years, have accepted that the concept of social tourism appears to be less understood in the UK than in Europe and that establishing the concept and creating a common understanding here would be helpful.

Social tourism was rarely mentioned in UK public discourse with the earliest mention I can find of “social tourism” being in the Guardian newspaper from March 1952 which referred to research by a Professor W Hunziker of the Geneva-based Alliance Internationale de Tourisme.  The International Bureau of Social Tourism got a fleeting mention in 1969 from the same newspaper.

Despite the multitude of small organisations providing some form of access to holidays and days out and government intervention on behalf of specific groups, such as carers, the number of people unable to access a break away from home is quite staggering.

Some 2.7 million families with children (from a UK total of 8 million) are deprived of a holiday due to low income and those families include 5 million children.

And yet British people feel just as strongly about the importance of their holidays as the rest of Europe; having an annual holiday is always just as highly ranked in surveys of social need.

And, of course, tourism is a very significant part of the UK economy with its value in excess of £120bn (€140bn) or 7.1% of UK GDP.  And £22bn of the total is spent via domestic tourism. Nearly 3 million people are employed in tourism and it is the UK’s third largest employer at 9.5% of the total. It is estimated that a new full-time tourism job is created with every £54,000 increase in tourism revenue.

1976holidays_thesocialneedIt was in 1976 that the first meaningful coverage of social tourism in the UK was generated with the publication of a report “Holidays: the social need” from the Social Tourism Action Group; a group established jointly by the English Tourist Board and Trades Union Congress.  The media coverage of the report also cited the recent formation of the Family Holiday Association although there was no direct connection between the two events.

Disappointingly, after the report and for almost the next three decades little was heard of social tourism in the UK.

What did happen though was a greatly improved attitude to accessible tourism as a result of a piece of UK legislation the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 which, in a radical move, insisted on an active approach that required employers, service providers etc. to take steps to remove barriers from disabled people’s participation.    Accessibility, as a result, has been taken seriously and, over the past 20 years, there has not only been a genuinely significant improvement in physical accessibility but also cultural attitudes.

VisitEngland currently sponsor an Inclusive Tourism Action Group that pulls together a wide consortium of groups concerned with accessibility.  Interestingly, this group recognises that aiding access is an important element of social tourism.

At the turn of this century, the Family Holiday Association started to move away from an exclusively philanthropic model that concentrated on raising funds to help as many struggling families as its budget would allow.  The charity began to investigate the scale of a social issue that resulted in so many people being excluded from what the fortunate majority take for granted.

It became obvious very quickly that there was little in the way of academic research, certainly in the English language, that looked at the benefits of holidays, social or otherwise.

The charity recognised that the lack of “evidence” was something that needed to be addressed and has gone out of its way to both encourage and facilitate academic research into the benefits for people – families in particular – being aided with access to holidays.

Universities including Sheffield, Surrey, Westminster and Nottingham have been particularly involved in producing academic papers.  One recent paper from Nottingham University found a significant increase in people’s self-efficacy. Psychologist Albert Bandura has defined self-efficacy as one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. One’s sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks, and challenges. Interestingly, the Nottingham study found this increase in self-efficacy manifested itself in much improved job-seeking activities.

The charity maintains a collection of English-language research papers on the Holidays Matter website.

The Family Holiday Association also realised that there were a multitude of long-standing social tourism models – big and small – to be found in Europe.

The charity set out to build a network of friends and partners, in both the UK and Europe, to establish a consortium of like-minded organisations whose aim was to explore how best to promote the concept of social tourism.  Social tourism seminars in London and Edinburgh were followed by a series of annual conferences under the banner of “Holidays 2011givingbritain_a_breakMatter”.  These gatherings were used to draw together this disparate community and to share and learn from each organisation’s experience.

This work reached a peak when, following the 2010 UK general election, the charity helped establish an All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Tourism at Westminster which resulted in the publication of its report “Giving Britain a Break; an inquiry into social tourism” in 2011.

The efforts of the members of parliament helped provide significant credibility to the work of the charity that facilitated building strong relations with Visit England and a number of Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) such as Visit Kent and Visit York (now Make it York).

Flanders Tourism, France’s ANCV, and Spain’s IMSERSO all participated in the parliamentary investigation and helped provide convincing testimony of the positive impact that their particular models of social tourism really delivered measurable and significant social and economic benefit.

Visit Kent were the first English DMO to act and built a social tourism element into their work with their Big Weekend programme that has been running successfully for the past three years.   (Watch the VisitKent short explanatory video)


The Kent team took the Flanders model as an example and encouraged offers of spare capacity from their local tourism and transport partners and used social welfare referrers to source families. This working example has been used to demonstrate the benefits of engaging with social tourism.

As a result, pilot programmes in York and Glasgow have since been established.  But perhaps the single biggest advance has come when VisitScotland decided to build a social tourism theme into their £-multi-million 2016 ScotSpirit marketing campaign.  Using the Kent / Flanders model has resulted in hundreds of struggling Scots families enjoying short breaks and days out that would not normally be within their reach.

And earlier this year, the Labour Party in Wales were elected to lead the Welsh devolved administration on a manifesto that included a commitment to develop social tourism. Already Welsh Government officials are exploring ways in which Ministers can take social tourism forward in Wales.

So as the awareness of social tourism increases and a greater understanding of the benefits it can deliver develops throughout the UK, what next?

In April this year, a high-level roundtable discussion was held in Westminster with MPs from the major political parties, VisitEngland, VisitScotland, a wide range of tourism organisations and not-for-profit organisations.  The purpose of the event was to take stock of the state of social tourism in the UK and what needs to be done next.

April 2016 Westminster Social Tourism Round-table

The clear signal from the gathering was that social tourism was an essential element in social welfare and that it had the potential to be a valuable economic driver for the domestic tourism industry. But what was missing was a simple way of aggregating the spare capacity that industry might want to offer and its distribution to those in most need.

Over the past few years, the increasing profile of social tourism and the charity’s role in acting as a hub of information and a source of experience has encouraged larger organisations such as the National Trust to work with the Family Holiday Association.

The National Trust is a huge organisation that looks after the nation’s heritage and open spaces and plays host some 20 million visitors each year. The Trust was keen to use the charity’s network of referrers to access the hard-to-reach groups that they wanted to encourage to visit their places.  As a result, hundreds of families have been helped to enjoy visits to some of the Trust’s fantastic venues free of charge.

The families were delighted and the Trust was happy that their objective of reaching struggling families was starting to be met in a simple and effective manner.

Other organisations like the bus and train companies, National Express and Great Western Railways, and attraction-owning organisations like Merlin Entertainments also began working with the charity to help meet their corporate social responsibility targets.   The charity currently has dozens of partnerships with tourism organisations and is using this donated spare capacity to meet the demand from its UK-wide network of referrers (social workers, teachers and other charities).

In 2016 the charity has been able to support over 5,000 families, a large increase on the 2015 result which was itself a record year.  Indeed, at times the supply had to be carefully managed so as not to overwhelm the organisation’s small grants and projects team.

As the recognition of social tourism and the benefits it can deliver increases in the UK’s corporate and public community, it has become obvious that there is both the desire and the potential for far greater use of the tourism industry’s spare capacity.  This chimes with the Westminster roundtable’s desire to see a means of aggregating and distributing that spare capacity.

The Family Holiday Association is acutely aware that, here in the UK, the drive for greater use of the social tourism model is shared between a wide group of organisations both big and small.  But in order to facilitate the speedy development of such a facility, the Family Holiday Association is delighted to announce that the charity has set aside £100,000 to fund the development of a web-based platform that will allow this aggregation and distribution on a much larger scale and in more efficient manner.  It is planned that the facility should be available for the start of the 2018 season.

It is hoped that this new and ambitious internet platform will prove to be a catalyst that helps to pull the wide and varied strands of UK social tourism into a more coherent and effective partnership.  There are five million children depending on its success.

[1] *The Lancet (established 1823) – one of the world’s oldest and best known general medical journals.

This piece was reproduced in the International Social Tourism Organisation’s recently published magazine Social Tourism in the World”.


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