After months of being cooped up indoors, allowed out once a day, and perhaps balancing work with childcare and remote schooling, many of us feel desperate to get away. And just when it seemed safe to return to the beaches of the Costa Del Sol or shimmering sands of Brittany, holidaymakers in the UK are faced with quarantines of two weeks on their return or making a scramble home before quarantine deadline.
At the same time, the UK’s lucrative tourism industry, fuelled by visits mainly from Europe and North America has had a rough go this year. In England alone, overseas visitors contributed around £19.8 billion pounds to the economy. Domestic tourism, though, nearly equals that amount, and domestic day trips amounted to £53 billion of spend. (Via Visit England) In a recent briefing (available to Members and Followers) we looked at how councils were planning to encourage the revival of tourism.
Of course, not every council area is blessed to be a tourist destination, but coastal and countryside areas have seen an increase in tourism as city breaks and foreign travel seem less sensible. Early on during the lockdown when travel was curtailed, people were warned not to travel to 2nd homes and there were even clever crowdsourced campaigns urging people to stay away.
The staycation (where you sleep at home, but take day trips) and the domestic tourism (UK-cation?) market was already large, demand for outings has been pent up, to say the least. We’ve seen swarms of people crowding beaches in Bournemouth and Brighton, in seeming defiance of social distancing. Worse are the stories of awful behaviour by visitors, blocking drives and leaving rubbish and even excrement. Councils were resorting to communications campaigns, focused on basic decency or even asking people to stay away.
Pembrokeshire Council in Wales was one of the councils who had to warn people to stay away from particularly popular beaches like West Angle Bay. And I know that this advice was entirely necessary, because I myself was unable to park there a couple of weeks ago. The car park was rammed, cars lined up dangerously along the narrow access lanes, and people were deeply queued not quite a metre apart at the ice cream van.
To coin yet another neologism, I was on a holiwork to Wales. My partner needed to take pictures of rocks for a virtual field trip and I eagerly signed on as a field assistant as I knew most of the localities were beautiful Gower and Pembrokeshire beaches. I spoke recently to Cllr Robert Francis-Davies, a Cabinet Members at Swansea with responsibility for tourism. He was glowing in his detailing of the amazing coast and countryside, but many of the amazing plans he detailed for destination leisure are dependent on people being able to congregate indoors in reasonable numbers and spend money on food, drink and entertainment. He spoke of the need to welcome people back, but safely. (Listen out for him in our next podcast.)
As we were working, and not playing, it’s hard to say if our behaviour would have been different on holiday, but I have my doubts about how much cash people will splash on a scaled-back Corona vacation. We’re pretty cheap, but we bought two meals from takeaways and the rest of our meals were prepared in our Air BnB (with groceries we bought locally). We bought a few ice creams and maybe a coffee? At the time, we couldn’t have gone to any indoor activities even if we weren’t busy taking 1000s of images of rocks. (But honestly, what could be better?) Sure, we weren’t typical tourists. But I didn’t see that our spending behaviour was completely out of line from that of other holiday-makers.
That means that while people are coming and putting strains on roads and services and possibly bringing Covid-19 from outside, raising anxiety, they also may not be spending enough to make up for it. Councils are faced with cleaning up, communicating and policing social distancing in a time of even greater financial pressure and the need to argue for every penny of Covid compensation.
Some councils are arguing for new sources of funding, too. Such as a tourism tax or special access charges such as a fee to climb Snowdonia. Beachside parking already often comes with charges. Calls for a Welsh tourism tax have already been rejected by the Welsh Assembly under fierce campaigning from the hospitality industry. There is little wonder that they are campaigning against it. Tourism is more important in the Welsh economy than in any other part of the UK, accounting for 4.9% of economic output compared to 3.7% in the UK. West Wales and the Valleys have a tourism ratio of 5.7%, underlining the sector’s key importance to these areas. However, arguments against the tax are predicated on the high rating of airline passenger duty and already high VAT rates. In other European countries, which may have local tourist taxes, the VAT rate is much lower – shifting the tax revenue from central to local. Making revenues and control local hasn’t been terribly British.
Perhaps by next year, things will be back to normal and we won’t need to worry too much about overcrowded natural attractions, perhaps not. But the argument about how best to support local services and infrastructure necessary for tourism will remain. It is time for some real discourse on local discretion in revenue generation and funding for more resilient finances.