THE Dorset firm behind some of the world’s favourite visitor attractions has said it is “confident” about the future despite a pre-tax loss of £648million loss in the year the pandemic struck.

Poole-based Merlin Entertainments said it welcomed 22m visitors in 2020 despite the lengthy closure of many sites.

Merlin is the world’s second biggest operator of visitor attractions, including Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, Legoland parks and Madame Tussauds.

In accounts for 2020, it said like-for-like revenue fell 64.2 per cent from the previous year, to £629m.

Chief executive Nick Varney said Merlin “got experience of the pandemic early” as Covid spread across Asia in late 2019.

“When we were able to open our attractions, it became clear that there is still demand for high quality days out with family and friends, despite the restrictions imposed by social distancing,” he wrote.

“Our Covid-secure attractions, adopting Merlin’s best in class health and safety protocols, have allowed the public to enjoy quality time together, which after the stresses of the pandemic are so crucial to people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

He said demand from domestic visitors was buoyed by “staycations”. “Our hotels, resort theme parks and Legoland parks have benefited form the staycation impact, with those in Europe and the UK performing particularly well,” he said.

“Our Sea Life centres, especially in coastal areas, also saw strong demand.”

He added: “Despite the many short term challenges presented by Covid19, we remain confident in the opportunities for the future that our diverse business has.”

A Merlin spokesperson said: “Like the rest of the global hospitality industry, we were closed in most attractions around the world for much of 2020 due to a global pandemic, and so unsurprisingly we lost money. Trading since reopening in 2021 shows that there is strong customer demand for a great day out at our parks and attractions, and we have since successfully opened a number of new attractions including Legoland New York and seven Midway attractions.”

Mr Varney said: “On reopening we have seen surging domestic demand and we are now recovering strongly.”

Merlin was bought for £5.9billion in 2019 by a consortium involving the owners of Lego, a private equity giant and a Canadian pension fund.