In recent weeks, the domestic tourism industry has earned something of a reputation. As they have stumbled their way through a rapidly changing landscape, they have been accused of creating a ‘stay away UK’ sentiment.
Many regional tourist boards opted to err on the side of caution as they attempted to navigate their way through a developing situation that saw business owners and visitors pitted against local communities, but this approach has led some to accuse them of neglecting their responsibilities in favour of nurturing the growing sense of fear surrounding what emerging from lockdown might mean.
VisitEngland, the national tourist board, has been somewhat quiet on this front – until now. Next Monday (May 25) marks the start of annual English Tourism Week, and the messaging couldn’t be more clear.
“English Tourism Week is all about highlighting the economic benefits that tourism brings to local economies, celebrating our diverse and exciting sector, and showcasing the quality, range and value of English tourism,” said VisitEngland Director Andrew Stokes.
“While we cannot run events as usual this year, the spirit of the week has never been more important. Tourism has been one of the first and hardest hit economic sectors due to the Covid-19 pandemic and this year’s virtual week is dedicated to showing support for the industry, the millions of people who work in it and the hundreds of thousands of businesses impacted.”
English TourismWeek returns next week as a virtual event. Tourism Minister @HuddlestonNigel said: "#EnglishTourismWeek20 recognises the important role the industry plays in our local, regional & national economies, supporting jobs & attracting investment."https://t.co/q0kvdtHMws pic.twitter.com/meKiVuBdmy— VisitEnglandBiz (@VisitEnglandBiz) May 21, 2020
Speaking to Telegraph Travel, Stokes raised concerns that tourism has suffered “cataclysmically” – not only in terms of the vast £22billion financial loss that the industry is facing, but in terms of its reputation.
“It’s really important that we get over this hump, and this view that tourism is a bad thing,” he said. “Essentially, we’re looking at a run of three winter seasons without time for the businesses to recover. Our sentiment research suggests that people who were intending on taking holidays from July to September are cancelling as they think they will not be able to go ahead. This is something that we need to address.”
In a surprising move, Cumbria Tourism, who have been criticised in recent weeks for their pessimistic messaging, are backing English Tourism Week. “Our ‘stay away’ message was an immediate response to the Government announcement on May 10 that we simply weren’t ready for,” Gill Haigh, managing director of Cumbria Tourism told Telegraph Travel.
“Everything is moving so quickly and we’re in a different position now,” she said. “The response over the last couple of weeks has been incredible – not just by the likes of the National Parks, Forestry Commission and National Trust, but from those who are now travelling to exercise.
“How amazing were people last weekend? We have seen the most respectful visiting that we could have ever hoped for and the overwhelming response has been one of incredible support. Visitors have come, they have been respectful and they have had a good experience. We can’t thank them enough. It is great, it’s the start of a return to normal.”
But not everyone is on board. When asked if they would be involved in English Tourism Week, Visit Cornwall told Telegraph Travel that they would only be “involved in a small way and not publicly. Given that the current uncertainty is combined with nervousness, we will keep our activities to discussions with local and national politicians.”
When asked how damaging the seemingly stubborn approach of some tourist boards could be to the industry, Stokes acknowledged that it does present difficulties. “It is absolutely a challenge,” he said. “I think that they will have to move on [their messaging] and I’m hoping tourism week will help change their mind. It is not a call to act to rush out today. We know that these things take time, but it’s about highlighting the strength of what we want to do in the future.
“It’s about highlighting what we stand at risk of losing. This is a wonderful country, and we don’t want it to lose its colour.”
English Tourism Week usually encourages MPs to engage with their local communities. “Tourism touches every constituency,” said Stokes. “Traditionally, what English Tourism Week is about is trying to influence local MPs and Local Authorities to support the tourism sector in their own locale and this year it’s more important than ever.
"There’s a lack of confidence on both sides – visitors and locals – and we want people to think about how we start moving towards a new normal.”
In that quest for the ‘new normal’, the call on the Government remains the same – more detail is needed. “The tourism industry isn’t something you can just turn on,” said Stokes. “It takes time.”
In Cumbria, many businesses are working towards the July 4 date proposed in the Government road map that would see them open up just in time for the main summer season. “What we haven’t got yet is granular detail and that’s what we need to support different segments of the industry for safe tourism guidance,” said Haigh. “The sooner that we have that detail, the better.”
English Tourism Week couldn’t come at a better time, encouraging politicians and MPs to think about what is needed as we move towards the next Government announcement, expected on May 31. It is hoped that a decision will also be made on the instigation of a new ‘quality mark’ that will give both business owners and visitors more confidence around travelling post-lockdown.
With the provision of more detail and a clearer timeline, it is hoped that many of us will be able to enjoy a British break this year. “English Tourism Week is about looking towards the future recovery and doing everything we can right now to ensure that tourism can bounce back to once again become one of the most successful and vibrant sectors of the economy,” said Stokes.
“It’s absolutely looking to a time when people can travel again.”