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Visiting friends and relatives (VFR) is BIG. Here’s why

Visiting friends and relatives, often referred to as VFR, is one of the most prominent types of tourism. Whether you are a tourism management student or a tourism industry entrepreneur, it is important that you understand this vital sector of the tourism industry.

In this article, I will tell you what is meant by the term ‘visiting friends and relatives’ (VFR) and where the term came from. I will also tell you a bit about the reasons why people might travel to visit friends and relatives and how this industry has grown in recent years. Lastly, I will give you some examples of where and how VFR might occur in a global context.

What is visiting friends and relatives (VFR)?

Visiting friends and relatives is a term that we hear thrown around frequently within the tourism industry. And, to be frank- it’s actually not difficult to understand.

Essentially, VFR is the movement of a person away from the place in which they live to a place where a family member or friend lives. Within the context of tourism, it is a prerequisite that said visit is far enough away from the person’s home and lasts a long enough duration that it can be classified as ‘tourism’.

Is VFR tourism?

Does visiting my grandma for afternoon tea at her home in the next village count as tourism?

What about if I travel to Spain to stay with my dad for two weeks in the summer holidays?

Well, whilst it may seem pretty obvious (the first is not tourism and the second is), there is no hard and fast rule that says when VFR is and isn’t tourism.

If you have read some of my other posts, such as A Definition of Tourism, you will notice that this is a recurring theme in the tourism literature. It is all too common that the boundaries are blurred and that the grey areas leave the door open for subjectivity and ambiguity.

How do Governments measure VFR? How can we compare VFR industries across different parts of the world? The answer- who knows and, well- no.

There has been a steady growth in VFR in the UK, according to Visit Britain

Where did the term VFR come from?

Visiting friends and relatives (VFR) is a concept that was defined by tourism industry stakeholders in order to better understand this sector of the tourism industry.

Segmentation of this type enabled travel industry researchers and academics to study the relationship between VFR travellers and aspects such as economic and social impacts of tourism.

By having a better understanding of the VFR sector, tourism businesses could be better informed to plan their operations. So, for example, hotels could better understand what facilities guests might be seeking and tourist attractions can understand what provisions may be needed for these types of tourists.

Changing patterns of visiting friends and relatives

The notion of visiting friends and family, or VFR, has changed significantly over the years.

Migration patterns have changed a lot- think back to the advent of the slave trade compared to todays economic migration- I am a prime example of this with out move from the UK to China.

Over the years travel has become easier, more affordable and more convenient. It is easy to hop on a budget airline flight to fly across Europe for a couple of days. Whilst it takes a bit longer, it is also perfectly reasonable to travel to the other side of the world to visit friends and family for a few weeks.

Other factors that have influenced the growth of VFR includes increased urbanisation of areas, the building of more airports and transport infrastructure and globalisation.

Reasons for the growth in visiting friends and relatives (VFR)

There are several different reasons for the growth in the visiting friends and relatives market around the world. This includes globalisation, a growing expat population, migration, freedom of movement, education and the desire to travel.

I will further explain each of these below.


Globalisation is the notion that we are all becoming more alike, or more ‘global’. Globalisation is increasingly present in almost every aspect of the world that we live in. From English schools in Taiwan, to smart phones in Ethiopia to fajitas in Australia, the world is becoming more and more connected and more and more alike.

Globalisation is bringing people together- we can communicate more easily and understand each other better than before. But globalisation is also increasing distance between us. People who would never have considered a move to, say Japan, are not relocating across the globe for better financial benefits, knowing that they can still get many of their home comforts.

Many business are opening up offices, headquarters and factories around the world and workforces are distributed all over the globe. This means that there is more business travel than ever before.

Growing expat population

The corporate world has, in many regards, become a multinational industry. This has meant that there has been an increase in people moving to live overseas around the world. In the UAE, for example, less than 12% of people who live there are Emirates, meaning that the expat population makes up more than 88%! Wow!

Infographic from Global Media Insight.

Naturally, expats will want to travel to visit their friends and families from time to time, and their friends and families are likely to want to visit them too. This is a clear example of VFR.


People have chosen to migrate from place to place throughout the history of tourism.

Over the years migration patterns have changed. Sometimes people migrate for safety reasons, such as war and political instability. Other times people choose to migrate for economic reasons, usually because the country that they are travelling to offers a better financial situation. And some people choose to migrate for other reasons such as the culture, the weather or the social aspects of a destination.

Popular migration origins, whereby people have opted to migrate the UK throughout the past couple of decades include; India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Nigeria and Poland.

People who have migrated out of the UK in recent years have typically chosen to relocate to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Singapore and Hong Kong.

People who migrate will often return to their country of origin to visit their friends and relatives. Likewise, their friends and relatives will often travel to visit them.

Freedom of movement

Having the freedom to travel to different places has inevitably impacted the VFR industry.

This is most evident in Europe, where the EU four freedoms has resulted in years of uninterrupted travel within the union. A decade or so ago there was a significant influx of people with passports from Eastern European countries moving to the UK. This was as a result of the economic opportunities available to in the UK compared to their home countries.


Education has also become increasingly globalised. Where I live, in Hangzhou, China, people pay a lot of money to send their children to international schools, where they are prepped to attend university in the UK or America. This is common practice in many parts of the world.

VFR amongst students and their families is a significant part of the visiting friends and relatives sector.

Desire to travel

Lastly, the most dominant reason for an increase in VFR is the desire to travel.

People nowadays want to see more of the world than ever before. People want to experience new cultures and do things that may not be possible in their home areas (i.e. sunbathing on the beach or skiing on a mountain).

Increased desire to travel has resulted in more people moving overseas, embarking on expatriate lifestyles and travelling for VFR purposes.

Degrowth in VFR

Whilst there has been a clear upwards trend in visiting friends and relatives around the world for many years, this was thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time irreversible societal changes occurred including a growth in the shut in economy and technological advancements in telecommunication.

It is likely that many areas will never be the same again. The elderly, who were once averse to using smart devices with significant technological capabilities, have now mastered the use of FaceTime. Group get togethers on Zoom are now commonplace. Microsoft Teams is now the most used classroom around the world.

It is likely that some of these areas will remain popular and may even continue to grow in the future. While there will always be a place for visiting grandma in Scotland and attending a work conference in Budapest, these will likely be less popular now that the world has adapted to using modern technologies that overcome the barriers of distance.

Examples of VFR

Here are some examples of situations whereby a person might travel for VFR purposes:

  • Visiting an aunty who moved to Canada ten years ago
  • Going to stay with an old school friend who lives in Portugal
  • Meeting your spouses family who live in Ghana
  • Travelling to Thailand to attend a family wedding
  • Going to visit your son at university in California
  • Travelling to Dubai to visit your best friend who moved there for work last year
  • Spending a month in Australia with your grandchildren who were born down under
  • Taking a short trip to Romania to visit your sick relative
  • Returning to your university town for a reunion event

To conclude: Visiting friends and relatives (VFR)

Hopefully now you understand what is meant by the term VFR and you understand why it is such an important part of the tourism industry. As you can see, there are many different situations whereby a person may choose to travel for VFR, from attending a school reunion to visiting your grandma. If you found this interesting, why not follow me on social media? Links at the top of the page!