'I feel suicidal at times': British tour guides reflect on the devastating impact of lockdowns

Kaye Holland
Global tourism has all but disappeared - Getty
Global tourism has all but disappeared - Getty

The latest lockdown, combined with the closure of all international travel corridors until at least February 15, has travel lovers once more hunkered down at home.

Yet while dashed plans can be disappointing, for tour guides – whose livelihoods depend on people travelling and exploring – England’s ‘stay at home’ order is nothing short of a catastrophe.

“I feel quite suicidal at times,” a weary Stephen Liddell told The Telegraph in a call from his freezing home in Bushey that he can only afford to heat for a few hours each day. The 47-year old guide and owner of Ye Olde England Tours has seen his bookings “drop by over 99 per cent” since last March.

He said: “Normally, I’d get about six bookings a day for the year ahead. As of now, I’ve got one – that’s for July. I’ve watched everything disappear and it hasn’t been my fault. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Liddell estimates that he has earned £500 since the outbreak of coronavirus – “I’ve worked it out and that’s on a par with the lowest per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa” – and is one of the three million self-employed who have fallen through the cracks of Rishi Sunak’s Covid bail-out schemes.

He was ineligible for state support because, pre-pandemic, “I worked pretty much every single day, including Christmas, and happily declared every penny of my cash tips to help pay the NHS and teachers as I was on a good salary.”

Liddell’s work ethos and honesty meant that he had average earnings of £53,000 in the last three years – much of which he earmarked for vital renovations on the new home he moved into at the start of 2020 – taking him £3,000 above the threshold for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme [SEISS] grant.

A married couple, each earning £49,500, would have been entitled to a SEISS grant of up to three separate instalments of £7,500 each.

Steve Liddell (right) with a tour grop
Steve Liddell (right) with a tour grop

A Zoom meeting with culture secretary Oliver Dowden proved fruitless. “He talked a lot about doing things for institutions – the theatres and royal palaces – but nothing for the human beings who make them come to life,” sighed Liddell.

Sadly, Liddell is far from the only tour guide struggling to survive, as David Atkinson can attest. Atkinson, who normally leads ghost tours around his hometown of Chester, has had very little work since April 2020 and qualified for “absolutely no support from the Government whatsoever – I am one of the three million excluded.”

Atkinson told The Telegraph: “It feels pretty rough to be constantly ignored and overlooked. It’s galling to see our illustrious government talking up all the time about how they are helping people while simultaneously sticking their fingers in their ears at us.”

He continued: “It’s been a really challenging time – I lost a member of my family to Covid early on which was an enormous strain, and that has been compounded with torture of homeschooling – but I’ve had to manage. I have two kids, a mortgage and bills to pay the same as everyone else.”

Steve Fallon, a self-confessed “know-it-all London Blue Badge guide” is another who has had a terrible year. The Boston native, who moved to London in the Nineties, said: “I guided every April through September before taking my tour guide hat off and writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet, which I have been doing since 1992.” Then the pandemic hit.

Having been self-employed for several decades, Fallon was fortunate to qualify for state support. He told The Telegraph: “It’s nothing to sneeze at but a couple of grand doesn’t last you 12 months.”

Alongside the financial drain, there’s the emotional toll of a third lockdown without work. “I’ve done a few online talks and lectures but nothing besides that.”

Fallon has been buoyed by the speedy roll-out of the Covid vaccine but knows that tour guides won’t reach the sunlit uplands anytime soon. “I don’t have a lot of hope for this year,” he said. “I think we’ll be dead in the water, I really do.”

Leon Thomas took the plunge and set up his own tour guide company, Scenic Excursion, in September 2019. Mere months later “the pandemic brought it to a shuddering halt.”

Thomas, who also lost his mother in lockdown, told The Telegraph: “I don’t know how I have kept going. I can’t even answer that. I’ve literally just said this [Scenic Excursion] has been my idea for so long and this is what has kept me on track.”

Some guides have successfully pivoted to survive. Sophie Campbell, a regular contributor Telegraph Travel, is one. She said: “I couldn’t be more grateful to Zoom. I keep thinking if this [the pandemic] had happened a decade ago, what would we have done? It’s a different way of working and I can’t say that I have found it easy, but I have really taken it seriously and designed a virtual section on my website. I oscillate somewhere between being really excited about technology and being in a state of gibbering terror, but the real terror would have been facing no work.”

Stéphanie Kuypers (second from right), a tour guide with Women of London and Tour for Muggles
Stéphanie Kuypers (second from right), a tour guide with Women of London and Tour for Muggles

Other tour guides, however, have been forced to begin new careers. Jake Clifford had been gearing up to celebrate his 10th anniversary as a Sandemans guide when Covid came along. After initially moving back to his parents – “my SEISS grant wasn’t enough to live in London” – Clifford landed a job as a teaching assistant.

He told The Telegraph: “I speak fluent French and so was thrown into the classroom and have now been offered a job. Giving up guiding has been a grieving process, but it’s not an industry to invest yourself in right now.”

It’s a stance shared by Stéphanie Kuypers, a tour guide with Women of London and Tour for Muggles. She told The Telegraph: “It’s nobody's fault this [Covid-19] has happened but it has put into perspective the pitfalls of being self employed in England today, especially in an industry that is one of the first to go and the last to recover.”

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