Why we need to act now to safeguard our tourism industry – Susan Briggs

WE’RE dreaming of freedom and escape, looking forward to when we can resume our travels. When lockdown ends we’ll meet friends and relatives, and venture out again.

Pedestrians walk along an empty street in York as the lockdown takes its toll on tourism.

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We’ll really appreciate the places we used to take for granted. A trip to the coast, a drink at the local pub, the wonder of a hill walk.

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We’re fortunate in Yorkshire: we have an enormous variety of contemporary urban pleasures, stunning coast and countryside.

Whitby on coronavirus lockdown - but what is the plan to revitalise Yorkshire's tourism industry? Photo: Tony Johnson.

But how many places to stay, pubs, cafes, attractions will still be there when we emerge from lockdown?

Research shows that if the lockdown continues for three months, as many as 30 per cent of tourism businesses are likely to permanently close.

A large proportion of tourism businesses are seasonal. They earn little in winter, and are very glad when the season starts again in spring so they can start to build reserves to carry them through the following winter.

Many businesses are now starting to come to terms with the idea of no income for a whole year. Some of those that will fail are at the bottom end of the market and haven’t kept up with market trends.

Streets around York Minster are empty when they would normally be filled with tourists.

Others are newer businesses such as experience and activity providers, who’ve invested heavily to provide an excellent service. They offer exactly what the market wants, but haven’t had time to create a financial cushion.

Some tourism businesses have received government funding. Many have not. The knock-on effects are significant, but not always obvious.

Fishermen are not going to sea because they can’t sell their catch in restaurants. Farmers can’t sell their milk when cafes are closed. Laundry companies, designers and myriad companies like mine that support the industry either don’t have any clients – or are not being paid.

Pubs and restaurants have started take-away services to generate some income. Most tourism businesses can’t change. All they can do is wait for better times. In the meantime, they’re trying to upgrade on shoestring budgets or improve their marketing so they’re poised for recovery. If we want a vibrant future economy and to enjoy the pleasures of a weekend away, we need to be ready to support Yorkshire tourism businesses as soon as we can. You can make a difference by buying a voucher or paying a deposit now against a future trip.

Towns like Harrogate would normally be attracting visitors and tourists by now. Now streets - and The Stray - are empty. Photo: Simon Hulme.

Small gestures like a simple message of support to your favourite cafe or pub could help them hold on a little longer. We can all play our part in increasing the chances of business survival.

Even a small bed and breakfast leaves a hole in the local economy when they go. Sooner or later, the impact will be felt on the local farm that provides eggs and bacon, on laundry services, local shops and attractions.

We should be doing more to guard against these potential losses. I can’t help comparing Covid-19 with how we dealt with previous crises such as 9/11 and foot-and-mouth.

However there’s not enough discussion about what comes next for the tourism industry. Over the last month I’ve been in contact with over 1,000 tourism businesses. They believe in a brighter future.

Hope is what gets them through. They believe that someone, somewhere will have a plan. But who is really thinking ahead, working on what we need to do now, and in the future? Whose responsibility is it? It’s unclear.

I’ve participated in numerous conference calls with tourism bodies and government-funded agencies, local and national. I don’t feel confident that we’re able to support the tourism industry.

The participants are well-intentioned but in fact-finding mode. Few have an in-depth understanding of tourism needs so they’re having to get to grips with an alien world before they can think about making plans.

Add the uncertainty about when lockdown will end and the consensus seems to be “we can’t plan because we don’t know when lockdown will end”.

I disagree. We need a robust plan ready for immediate action. When a shop re-opens, customers can immediately enter. It takes longer for visitors to fill accommodation.

We need to take action now to build demand for later, otherwise there will be a time lag between the end of lockdown and income generation. The tourism industry can’t afford any more delays.

We need to give businesses confidence in the future. We need to bring everyone in the industry together, to unite and support each other. Even when everywhere is closed, we can inspire potential visitors, ready to make the most of all we have to offer.

Maybe it’s because I speak directly to so many small businesses that I have such a sense of urgency, fed by their desperate need for confidence in the future.

I’m motivated to help businesses start earning as quickly as possible so I can do the same.

But this isn’t a job for an individual or even one organisation.

Councils and other agencies are already over-burdened. We can achieve more by combining forces. We need an immediate, open discussion.

The tourism industry needs to feel there’s a collective voice representing their needs, with a strong sense of direction. Minds are wide open and ready to find new approaches.

Lockdown has revealed some trends that might even lead to new opportunities.

This horrible situation has showcased the beauty of nature, and highlighted the impact of humans on the world.

Now is the time to talk about the kind of tourism we want, to plan a more positive future.

Let’s get on with it. Soon.

Susan Briggs, from Masham, is a grassroots tourism campaigner. She is director of The Tourism Network.

What is your ultimate Yorkshire visit wishlist – and which hidden gems are you looking forward to visiting again after the lockdown? Email: [email protected]

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