'Like all good Yorkshiremen, we always end up coming back to Yorkshire' - Tourism boss returns to old patch to help coronavirus recovery

As tourism businesses throw their all into recovering what is left of the 2020 season, North Yorkshire’s market towns are at the heart of a new tourism boss’ recovery plan, Geraldine Scott reports.

“Like all good Yorkshiremen, we always end up coming back to Yorkshire,” jokes David Shields while in the market town of Stokesley on a busy day of rushing between meetings.

It is a key time for tourism businesses in North Yorkshire and the rest of the country.

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Mr Shields, who has held a number of regional and national tourism roles, has been made the business and economy tourism advisor at Hambleton District Council, just as the sector scrambles to salvage what it can in the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

David Shields, who has just started working with Hambleton District Council as a business and economy tourism advisor to support Hambleton businesses in bouncing back from the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: JPI Media

More than £22bn could be lost in tourism nationally due to the wipe-out in international travel caused by the pandemic, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

And almost three million jobs in the UK that rely on, or are supported by, the travel and tourism industry could be lost in the worst-case scenario.

But Mr Shields is adamant that there are green shoots of recovery in North Yorkshire as businesses have turned to increasing collaboration.

And market towns such as Stokesley are exactly the type of location the 63-year-old tourism expert has placed at the centre of his plan to reinvigorate the sector as interest in staycations soars.

“It’s not quite the same as coronavirus, but we’ve seen this before with foot and mouth in 2001,” says Mr Shields, who has decades of experience working in the sector.

“It decimated various parts of the country, and the visitor economy. And again, people are recognising the importance of the visitor economy, especially to rural areas.”

Mr Shields was most recently area director for North Yorkshire at Welcome to Yorkshire - which he says there is “definitely a need for” amid cashflow issues at the organisation.

Before that, he held a variety of tourism posts across Yorkshire and nationally, including at Kelburn Castle, on the West Coast of Scotland and the seat of the Earls of Glasgow.

“They were actually one of the oldest families in Scotland, they were originally the de Boyvilles from Caen in Normandy and they all came over with William the Conqueror,” he says.

But their heavy involvement in tourism in the area meant that when Mr Shields started looking for other jobs, competitors were reticent to poach him, causing him to return to God’s Own Country.

Taking up the role of tourism officer at Hambleton in 1999, he helped open the World of James Herriot in Thirsk, now thrust into the spotlight in All Creatures Great And Small, Channel 5’s television reboot on the life of Mr Herriot, the pen-name given to the real-life vet Alf Wight who worked in Yorkshire from the 1940s onwards.

“The positive response that has got, that can be beneficial,” Mr Shields says. “It is filmed in the Yorkshire Dales, so businesses will benefit there. But I think also from a Hambleton perspective, we’re going to really maximise the opportunities because, of course, Hambleton technically is the real Herriot country. The stories that Alf Wight wrote about the farming community are around Northallerton, that’s where the stories come from.”

But Mr Shields, who lives in the village of Topcliffe with his partner, Irene, says he is under no illusions about the proverbial mountain which he has to climb to help the beleaguered industry.

His job is to aid the district so it is in the best shape possible to recover, as well as making sure people living close by also enjoy what is on their doorstep.

“It’s identifying the unique selling points (of Hambleton) as well as the market towns, and how we can help raise that profile,” he said. “It is especially important to give residents and locals at this present time that sort of reassurance that you can come out.”

In Easingwold, staff at the Tourist Information Centre have produced books for those wanting to find out what they could do without travelling far.

“They’ve said since they re-opened after the lockdown, the number of people who have come, locals, to find out what they can do, and they’ve said ‘oh we didn’t know there was that local walk’, they’ve gone for a walk, come back into the town, and they’ve got a really great coffee culture in Easingwold where people can have a coffee or cake. But it’s building the confidence and also supporting the local economy and looking at all the other market towns as well to develop that local offer, as well as the visitor offer.”

However, there can be no doubt that the national lockdown stemming from coronavirus has had a huge impact on businesses.

Mr Shields says: “We had the lockdown around a key period for tourism businesses which is Easter - if you have a good Easter, it sets you up for the rest of the year.

“But if you have a bad Easter, you’re near enough playing catch up for the rest of the year.

“If we didn’t have coronavirus, we would be looking at peak coming into September, in October you’ve got half-term, you’ve got things around Halloween, the Christmas festive market is massive.

“So it seems reasonable to extend the season, and not just for the towns and cities but rural areas as well. People will still come out and walk in winter and cycle in winter, and maybe go out and get wet, dirty, covered in mud. But they will then want to go back to their nice, warm cosy cottage, or their quality hotel.”

He adds: “I think the feeling is there’s a positivity out there at present, people are venturing out. I just fear that some businesses, because they’ve lost so much of the season, will struggle to get through the winter.”

On the other hand, he says, innovation in technology and working together had been one of the positives to come out of the pandemic, and businesses will benefit from adapting.

Mr Shields says: “When we come out of this, the tourism product in North Yorkshire will be even strong.”