LONDON, May 19 (Reuters) - Visits to Britain by North Americans surged at the start of this year as tourists took advantage of the weakened pound, which may be forcing British holidaymakers to stay closer to home, official data showed on Friday.
Some 8.1 million people visited Britain in the first quarter of this year, up from 7.6 million in the same quarter a year ago - a 7 percent increase, the Office for National Statistics said.
"The (data) indicate that the sharply weakened pound is encouraging more visits to the UK from abroad and more spend by visitors," Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight, said.
"This is especially true of North America, which ties in with the pound's fall being most pronounced against the U.S. dollar."
The pound tumbled against the U.S. dollar after the June 23 vote to leave the European Union, instantly making Britain a cheaper place to visit. As of the first quarter of 2017, it was still down around 17 percent against the American currency.
The number of North American tourists visiting Britain totalled 760,000 in the three months to March, up 17 percent compared with a year ago.
But on the flip-side of the pound's plunge, the number of Britons making the trip to North America fell 3 percent over the same period to 710,000.
There was a 2 percent increase in the number of British visitors to Europe, suggesting the pound's fall may be forcing British people to holiday closer to home and chiming with reports of a rise in "staycationing" in Britain.
Visitors to Britain from other European countries increased 4 percent compared with a year ago, rising to 6.2 million.
Domestic and foreign tourism accounts directly for about 4 percent of Britain's economy, according to official statistics, though the industry says the broader contribution is larger.
Britain's economy has outperformed most forecasters' expectations since the vote to leave the European Union, which sent the pound to a record low against a basket of currencies.
This has already produced a sharp rise in inflation, but there has also been evidence of a modest boost to exports and inbound tourism.
A survey of manufacturers on Friday showed export orders are growing at the joint-fastest pace since December, 2013. (Editing by Ed Osmond)