The tourism workers struggling in Yorkshire’s empty towns and cities

The pandemic has wiped out business for workers who rely on a tourist customer base. Many are struggling to access help, and fear travel will return too late to save them.

York's city centre has been eerily quiet for weeks.

If the defining image of New York during coronavirus is an empty Times Square, then the equivalent for its much older namesake has got to be York’s Shambles, totally free of tourists.

At this time of year, the ancient cobbled street is usually packed with tourists snapping pictures, peering into windows or huddled together, patiently listening to a tour guide.

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Yet today, save for a few locals darting through on their way to somewhere else, the narrow street lies vacant and eerily quiet, as though cleared and primed for a film shoot.

Whitby's economy has taken a hit under lockdown, with spending significantly down in April.

Tourism was one of the earliest casualties to the coronavirus pandemic, with cautious travellers from around the world cancelling or postponing trips long before the UK-wide lockdown was called on 23rd March.

It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, that Yorkshire’s tourism-reliant economies have been some of the worst-hit not by the pandemic, not only in the region but in the country as a whole.

Data for the week ending April 21 shows that overall spending in Whitby, for instance, was down 66 per cent compared to the same week in 2019 - the seventh-highest drop in the UK. York wasn’t lagging too far behind, with data for the same period showing overall spending to be down 51 per cent.

For those who rely on tourists for their income, the outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time. The warmer temperatures that usually spell a seasonal income boost mean little now, with shops shuttered and would-be travellers stuck at home.

Gusty Gingers, the shop Leisha De Sancho runs in Whitby, has been closed for weeks now.

And while some of these workers have been able to access help from the government, the varied and sometimes precarious nature of work in the sector has left many falling through the gaps.

Sean Bullick, Managing Director of Make it York, says that in spite of the evaporation of tourism, the organisation has been busy over the past few weeks trying to support these workers and businesses:

“We’ve been getting ourselves organised to deliver as much support as we can, and advising businesses around things like loan schemes, grant schemes… but also things finding out which sectors weren’t receiving help...and feeding that up to central government”.

He points out that touristic towns and cities often see a “quick turnover rate” when it comes to businesses, given historic cities like York are “such an attractive place to be”.

Leisha has managed to get financial help from the government, but remains concerned for the future of her business.

As a result, hundreds of fledgling businesses have had difficulty accessing sufficient funds to cover the interruption to trading:

“Under normal circumstances, if you wanted to borrow money from the bank, you would typically show three years’ accounts, but of course if you’ve just set up and you’re new, you won’t have that - and that makes it extremely difficult [for you]”.

It’s an issue Ellen Smith (name changed for privacy reasons) has come up against while trying to access financial help to cover the loss of her sole income stream - a popular Whitby holiday let.

Wrongly advised to pay council tax - instead of business rates - on the let, Ellen doesn’t qualify for the £10,000 grant that other businesses - such as B&Bs - have been able to claim.

Invisible Cities, a scheme which trains those with experience of homelessness as tour guides, is relying on the goodwill of supporters to get them through this period.

Instead, she’s had to wait for the self-employed income support stream, which promises to pay 80% of the earnings stated on the applicant’s tax return. One of these returns, says Ellen, will have “hardly anything” on it, given it was her first year in business:

“I’ve got a rough idea what it [the government payout] might be because it’s based on the last three years, but the first year that I submitted my tax return was when I first started...it hardly had anything on it, so it’s not going to be brilliant”.

She considers herself one of the “lucky” ones as her husband’s furlough pay is helping the both of them get by for now, but says that the past few weeks have been “really stressful”, and fears for the future if restrictions stretch on much longer.

It’s a fear shared even by those who have managed to access financial packages from the government.

Leisha De Sancho, who runs an alternative clothing and homewares shop in Whitby, says that while the grant she’s received from the government will “help pay the rent for a while”, she too worries about the impact if restrictions remain in place for months to come.

She adds, too, that her shop would be practically impossible to operate under social distancing guidelines, if this was the only means of re-opening:

Rose feels she's been "left at the bottom of the pile" by the government, and has been unable to access financial help to keep her tour guiding business afloat.

“We’ve got low ceilings, it’s really narrow, people are always bumping shoulders...I don’t know how it could be done”.

Largely, however, she’s finding reason to be optimistic, with an online store keeping her propped up, and support from the local community keeping her spirits afloat.

Yet for those whose business relies almost exclusively on tourists, the bigger picture looks bleak.

Invisible Cities, a scheme which supports the homeless through training them as tour guides alongside a package of other support, has found themselves struggling to support guides since lockdown began. Kenny Lieske, who heads up the York branch, said:

“Our income has dropped significantly, and no walking tours means that all of our guides are at risk financially. Invisible Cities is currently raising money to provide weekly food and household items for its guides, but we’ve become very much dependent on the goodwill of our supporters”.

Mark Graham and his wife, Sharon, are similarly worried for the future of their business. And while he says that funds from the self-employment scheme have been a “big help”, he points out that - contrary to what some may think - running a walking tour has significant overheads:

“As a well-established attraction we advertise in all the tourist publications and produce thousands of printed leaflets…all the bills for these come at this time of year along insurance and accountant bills. We only just paid our six monthly income tax bill in January”.

It’s a frustration that Whitby tour guide Rose Rylands shares. As well as support for the self-employed arriving much later than for others, the package is means tested - meaning she’s expected to run down her retirement savings before receiving any help:

“I just feel left at the bottom of the pile right now while everyone else is getting all this [help] and people are furloughed on 80 per cent of their wages...and they’re not means tested”.

She’s frustrated, she says, that her hard work on the business for the past 12 years might all go to waste:

“I've worked really, really hard to get to a stage where moving into my 60s, I've got a little business...right now I’m just having to spend my savings...there is no [financial] package for someone in my position to apply for”.

She, like most others in the tourism industry, fears that tourism won’t just be the first industry to suffer at the hands of coronavirus, but the last to return too.

Research shows that a lockdown of just three months more could see as many as 30 per cent of tourism businesses permanently close. “Right now I'm very fast trying to reinvent myself”, says Rose.

Long after everyday restrictions are removed, tourists are likely to feel nervous about travelling. This may be especially true, says Sean, of older tourists, who “may be less confident about coming back”.

Restrictions on international travel will also likely remain for some time - something that could be challenging for a city like York, where a huge number of tourists hail from abroad. “The impact of that is potentially very worrying”, says Sean.

He maintains, however, that tourism bodies like Make it York are doing their best to support businesses in the sector through this period, and says that the “attractive offer” of destinations like York will make it easy to get tourism flowing again once possible.

Until then, for those working in tourism, it’s an anxious waiting game. And while all those in limbo are worried for their future, they remain grateful for their health and safety.

“We live in hope”, Mark tells me. “We hope the nation bounces back and visits our beautiful city once again”.