An influx of Eurozone leisure visitors due to the weakness of Sterling was insufficient to offset the number of inbound travellers to Britain falling for the first time in seven year.
British tourists also made fewer visits abroad last year, choosing instead the growing trend of “staycationing”, as a result of the downturn.
The figures for 2008, published in the annual Travel Trends report from the Office for National Statistics, showed there were 31.9m foreign visits to Britain last year, a 2.7% fall on the previous year.
This was the first drop since 2001, when a combination of the outbreak of SARS and the September 11 attacks in the US led to a dramatic slump.
In May 2009, numbers fell 14 percent year-on-year, with a sharp decline in business travel cited as the greatest factor. There were also 12 percent fewer visitors in the first five months of 2009 compared to the same period last year.
Arrivals from North America fell the sharpest, down 19% in the first five months of the year. Visits from the Eurozone were down by five percent compared to the same period in 2008.
Arrivals from other parts of the world (Central and South America, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Australasia) were down by 15%.
Outbound visits by UK residents in the first five months were down by 17%, with travel to North America down by 25%, visits to Europe down 16%, and visits to the remaining parts of the world down by 15%.
The national tourism agency, VisitBritain, brushed off the declines as expected given the current economic climate.
A spokesperson said: “Thanks to good exchange rates in May, Britain continues to do better than expected given the challenging economic climate that is affecting global travel.
“The figures illustrate the continuing challenges of maintaining Britain’s popularity as a destination as the global economic downturn began to bite and in the face of increasing competition from rival destinations.
“There are positive signs for the start of 2009 as a weak pound offers value for money that other countries cannot match.
“However, we still expect 2009 to be equally challenging and will be doing all we can to remind international visitors of the many quality experiences they can enjoy here.”