t’s bank holiday weekend, and the sun is shining across much of the country. Any other year beaches would be packed, kickstarting the annual holiday season. But this year many of the UK’s hoteliers, tourist attractions and holiday park operators are wondering if and when they will be able to open at all over the coming summer months, a time when they should be banking the profits to tide them through the slower winter months.
Tourism is part of the UK’s £130bn hospitality sector, which employs 3.2 million people, so the stakes are high. Between June and September, for instance, Cornwall usually takes in 55% of its near-£2bn annual tourist spend.
Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, says the tourist business will be tuning in to Boris Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday evening, when he is expected to outline the first tentative measures towards easing the lockdown. In Cornwall, Bell says, up to 40,000 jobs are on the line.
Key to the future of the holiday industry is trying to understand what long-term social distancing means for tourism – from monitoring intensive care bed availability to turning families with buckets and spades away from the beaches and managing shared toilet blocks.
After being stuck at home for seven weeks plenty of Britons are desperate to leave their homes, but whether they will be able to go on holiday, can afford to – or will feel brave enough – is another question.
Elderly holiday makers in St Ives, Cornwall.
Elderly holiday makers in St Ives, Cornwall. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The air travel search website Skyscanner said that bookings and activity on the site is lower than normal at this time of year, with customers planning long-haul winter breaks rather than a traditional summer holidays.
But a consumer poll conducted last week by the company found just 18% of Britons believed domestic travel would be safe within a month and only 39% thought it would be safe within three months. For overseas travel those figures were lower – 8% and 24% respectively.
The British Holiday & Home Parks Association (BH&HPA) which has 2,000 members ranging from small camp grounds to caravan sites and large holiday parks, said that despite the closure of all parks, its phones were still ringing. “[Members] are getting a lot of interest for bookings, said BH&HPA spokesman Jon Boston. “There is a big latent demand to get out and about.”
The owners of rental firm Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages – with 400 properties on its books – are less sure. “We have not had a massive amount of bookings for this summer yet but I’m hoping it will happen,” says Liz Daniel, one of the directors.
Business Today: sign up for a morning shot of financial news
Daniel is eager to hear the prime minister’s plan to scale back the lockdown: “We are waiting to get a definitive idea of the type of cleaning that will be expected and the timescale if a property might need to be left empty before the next guests. This will make things very, very difficult for existing bookings.”
However, once the plan for the summer months is clearer Daniel is optimistic people will want to “run to the hills”. “We have some truly gorgeous remote cottages and I think there could not be a safer place,” she says.
The Isle of Wight usually attracts 2.4 million visitors a year and Will Myles, managing director of Visit Isle of Wight, also believes potential holidaymakers are still keen. “We’re still getting emails asking for brochures,” he says of the island which has been chosen as the guinea pig for the government’s coronavirus contact-tracing app. “The demand is there. It is an island that thrives on tourism and we certainly want people back.”
Steephill Cove Beach, Isle of Wight.
Steephill Cove Beach, Isle of Wight. Photograph: Property of Chad Powell/Getty Images
But in many locations rebooting the tourism industry will have to be handled extremely sensitively, simply because many host communities fear the health implications of the return of tourists and second-home owners.
“We know the population is nervous for obvious reasons,” says Bell, who says there are currently three patients in local intensive care wards, which have capacity for 60. Cornwall has 530,000 residents but its population increases by 185,000 during the peak holiday season.
Bell, who lives near Truro, says he has debates with his family over the pros and cons of reopening. But, he says, that unless the government is “going to come over the hill with a £1.5bn cheque for Cornwall” a balance will need to be struck.
“I say ‘what about the 40% of businesses we know are in distress and those worried about losing their job and their houses? What about the fishermen who aren’t selling any fish?’”
Visit Cornwall is working with the council, police and NHS to figure what the safe number of visitors could be. They may also need to manage crowds on Cornwall’s 300 beaches, which include family-friendly spots such as the two mile-long Perranporth with its natural swimming pool.
“One way is to control car parking,” says Bell. “If you know what the beach can take you can have that number of car parking spaces, and then a ban on parking within a certain distance.” Attractions could also introduce timed entry of the kind already operated at popular sights such as Tintagel Castle.
When holiday parks and campsites reopen around the country, those who own properties and caravans may be allowed back before renters and campers. Tent pitches will be spaced out more than normal.
Share your story
Share your stories
If you have been affected or have any information, we’d like to hear from you. You can get in touch by filling in the form below, anonymously if you wish or contact us via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding the contact +44(0)7867825056. Only the Guardian can see your contributions and one of our journalists may contact you to discuss further.
Martin Smith, founder of Campsites.co.uk, said the number of visitors to its site had picked up in the last fortnight but “booking and enquiry volumes are still 95% down on last year, and most people are looking at August rather than anything sooner”.
Many campsites are small family businesses, Smith says, and they may have reservations about their own health: “They will be weighing that up against being unable to survive a summer of no bookings.”
If there is no summer trade many businesses will be mothballed until next spring – a decision that would have a big impact on jobs in a place like Cornwall where one in three households is at least partially reliant on tourism. “That would mean between 30,000 and 40,000 redundancies, which is a scary,” says Bell.
“We don’t want to open a day too early, but equally not a day too late.”