Coronavirus ‘domino effect’ fears for Yorkshire Dales businesses

Tourism firms in the Yorkshire Dales are being hit by growing cancellations and declining bookings over the coronavirus pandemic - and fear a ‘domino effect’ for other local businesses. Ruth Dacey and Chris Burn report.

FOR Nina Wilson, the arrival of early spring is a time when she would normally be preparing for the start of the annual tourism season while running her bed and breakfast deep in the heart of Wensleydale.

But this weekend, many rooms are vacant at her business in the market town of Hawes, one of the main tourism destinations of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which feels eerily quiet with the growing threat of the coronavirus outbreak.

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The former emergency liaison officer who grew up in Wakefield, moved to Hawes two years ago and established The Dales House Bed and Breakfast in her first tourism venture. After a prosperous opening season, Wilson tells The Yorkshire Post it is a worrying time with average trade down by 81 percent in comparison with the same time last year.

Nina Wilson, the owner of Dales House Bed & Breakfast in the Market Place in Hawes. Picture Tony Johnson

“This is my livelihood. I am worried that I won’t catch-up,” she says. “This time last year I had bookings coming in every day. But now it’s about two a week.”

Wilson is part of a tourism industry in the area that supports over 3,600 jobs, with visitors bringing in more than £260m per year to the region according to the most recent statistics from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority from 2017. Last year, tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire said the value of tourism to the wider Yorkshire economy was £9bn.

The 71-year-old says her Market Place based business wouldn’t be able to survive if trade didn’t improve and said help would need to be provided if the low trade continued with many other local businesses in a similar damaging position.

“I can survive at the moment because of good financial management but I couldn’t survive two seasons like this,” she says. “We rely on the tourist trade here in Hawes and we are all in the same boat. There will be people hurting and I know bookings are down for other people. We are all down,” she said. “If it continues like this for a sustained period there would definitely need to be relief money or some actions put in place.”

Neil and Jane McNair owners of Low Mill Guest House, Bainbridge near Leyburn who are seeing cancellations due to the coronavirus. Picture Tony Johnson

Wilson says that the coronavirus outbreak was just the “tip of the iceberg,” after a turbulent winter season affected by flooding and severe weather.

Neil McNair, who runs the Low Mill Guest House in Bainbridge with wife Jane, says the coronavirus situation has been more concerning for their business than flooding.

“We did pretty well earlier the year despite the floods. We are an old watermill right on the river and our building is almost designed to flood. The basement got flooded three times in three weeks during the storms we had on consecutive weekends. Bainbridge was pretty much cut off but we managed to keep our bookings and everyone came.

“But with coronavirus, we are getting quiet. Bookings have slowed down and we are now starting to see an increase in cancellations, especially from overseas.

Andrew and Diane Howarth.

“We’ve just had our first UK cancellation. Before that we have had about six bookings - equivalent to 19 nights - cancelled. One of them has rebooked for the same dates in 2021 thankfully. Normally at this time of year - January, February and March - we are getting lots of bookings, filling up for the summer months. Getting on towards Easter we would generally expect to have all our weekends going through to September booked up.”

But he says that is not happening, with lower than normal numbers for July and August so far. “People are so uncertain - we don’t know what is going to happen and whether we are going the same way as Italy.”

He says he is not worried about the future of the business as of yet. “It is only short-term and you would think once you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, people will start booking again. I think holidays abroad are going to probably take a bigger hit.”

The McNairs moved from London to open their business in 2011 but Neil says those who have been around the area for longer say the situation around coronavirus is bringing back memories of the foot and mouth disease crisis of 2001, which involved the introduction of exclusion zones.

“I took the dog out for a walk and spoke to someone from the National Park who said this has got the feel of when foot and mouth was around. But she said, ‘We recovered from that and we will recover from this’.”

Diane Howarth, who runs Cottage in the Dales in Newbiggin, near Leyburn, says: “It is a busy time for bookings for the rest of the year and we have been very lucky in the past that we get bookings all year around. We are already 75 per cent full for the rest of the year but it is whether or not those people will actually turn up.

“People will be waiting to see what happens and we really don’t know the effect yet. We have got to keep promoting the Yorkshire Dales because it is one of the safest and healthiest places to be this year.

“Until the Government are able to put confidence back, people won’t start rebooking and you can’t blame them in the circumstances. You could close for months on end like with foot and mouth.

“The worst case scenario is nothing coming in and the question of how you can manage that. It is going to be on a week-by-week basis.”

Howarth says it is not just tourism firms that are being affected.

“There is a large domino effect on the local rural community and businesses if we, and other tourism businesses, all have a downturn this summer. We have local people as contractors to help run our business, so their income will be affected. We won’t be able to employ trades to do improvements and develop our business. The guests who stay with us spend money in pubs, eateries, retail, attractions, so they will suffer. The biggest two businesses are Wensleydale Creamery and Tennants Auctioneers who all rely on visitors. The rest are all family/micro businesses either in tourism or farming. So we are all interlinked and affected, but by how much and for how long, no-one knows.”

Susan Briggs, who runs the Tourism Network in Masham, has written to local councils to set assistance with funding for what she says needs to be a “two-pronged recovery campaign” - involving both advice to businesses on how to counteract the downturn and preparing promotional plans and activities for when the crisis is over.

Briggs says she believes comparisons with what happened with foot-and-mouth are wide of the mark - and the Dales may actually prove to be a sought-after destination because of its remoteness.

“I think we’re comparing it to foot and mouth because it feels serious but is different in that coronavirus could be anywhere. The big difference is that foot and mouth meant that many areas of countryside were out of bounds, whereas now they’re some of the ‘safest’ places in terms of fewer people.

“Tourism is a resilient industry. We’ve been through other twists and turns - we’ll bounce back.”

But before any longer-term strategy is pursued, back in Hawes, Wilson says more visitors must visit the Yorkshire Dales over the next coming weeks, or many local businesses may be forced to close.

Her message is simple: “Please come and visit... please don’t stop coming.”

She adds: “We are most certainly open for business and we are doing all the right things to welcome you into the Yorkshire Dales.

“You need a break, we need a break. We all need to be helping each other - there is no need to stop coming.”