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Forget the foreign holiday, the UK tourist industry is under real pressure

UK staycation


As the list of countries on the UK’s self isolate list continues to grow, it’s fair to say that the 14 day quarantine on Brits returning from holidays has been a huge blow to many who were holding onto a final glimmer of sunshine this summer.

The decision brought yet more criticism of Westminster’s capricious approach to travel restrictions. The hokey cokey nature of the announcements with little warning (islands in, islands out…) have left thousands of would-be holiday makers in a quandary.

Let’s not forget that whilst missing out on a foreign holiday is a blow, the Government has suggested all along that routes abroad won’t be guaranteed and would be subject to the data. Instead we have been encouraged to holiday at home. Huge numbers of jobs and businesses across the UK rely on the influx of tourism not just from abroad, but from all corners of the UK and with the uncertainty of foreign travel prevailing, there could have been a home advantage up for grabs. However, the different approaches to reopening from the Scottish and Welsh Governments has only added to the confusion on what we can and can’t do this summer.

We all understand that, during a pandemic, facts can change and governments must act to keep us safe. Whilst many may argue that a cautious approach is the best, there have been accusations that Nicola Sturgeon’s very public stand against Westminster’s coronavirus policies are part of a wider regime to score political points. Not ruling out the possibility of border restrictions with England and Sturgeon’s initial criticism of Westminster’s air bridges proposal as “shambolic” provoked a backlash from Scottish business owners who argued this sent the message that Scotland is ‘closed for business’.

Mark Drakeford, the first minister for Wales has taken a lighter approach to Westminster’s coronavirus policies, announcing recently that Wales was open to tourists, with the caveat that he would not hesitate to close down areas such as national parks if there were localised surges in coronavirus cases. My fear here is that cross-border rules are all in their different stages, from how many people you can meet, to which facilities are open. England’s road back to normality is three steps, Scotland’s is in four phases and Wales uses a traffic light system.

The confusion will result in a lower number of English tourists travelling either to Scotland or Wales for their summer staycation, opting instead to remain in England. For the small businesses across the UK, especially those who rely on tourism, to them it looks like the country’s leaders are playing politics with their livelihoods as the drop in summer income has been exacerbated by the disjointed approach to easing lockdown.

Let’s look at some of the UK’s tourism stats. In a normal year, Scotland welcomes 5.7m visitors from the UK, a huge number when you consider Scotland’s population is just 5.4m. Scotland also has around 14,000 tourism-reliant enterprises, which amounts to 1 in 12 small businesses and 217,000 jobs. For Wales, 85% of their tourism comes from UK residents, with around 1 in 10 of the workforce being employed in the visitor economy, which contributes six percentof the Gross Value Added to the Welsh economy. Any political decision – or indecision – that discourages English tourists to travel to Scotland or Wales could be hugely detrimental for the small businesses that rely on the visitor economy.

In January of this year, the “Welcome to Wales” initiative published a document, outlining the priorities for the Welsh visitor economy from 2020-2025, after achieving its target growth rate of 10% in overnight visitors between 2012 and 2020. With high hopes and ambitious tourist growth targets over the coming years, it’s heartbreaking to hear of the impact the pandemic has had on the seasonal businesses in Wales.

In a recent BBC article, the difficulties faced by local business owners, reliant on summer tourism was laid bare. Mark Whitehouse, from Powys in Wales, was quoted as saying: “We’re never going to get back what we lost, but at least we’re going to be able to salvage some of the summer.” Zoe Hawkins, operations manager for Mid Wales Tourism, said: “About 95% of the tourism businesses in mid Wales are independent, micro businesses. These are families and communities that completely rely on the tourism sector – people coming into the area, spending in our local shops, visiting attractions and staying in local accommodation.” It’s a relief to see that there might be some respite this summer, where these businesses can try and claw back what they’ve lost. But those who don’t travel across the UK because they are concerned or confused by the different reopening strategies from different Governments will put further pressure on these seasonal businesses.

I understand that caution in a crisis is key and I accept that the pandemic was always going to negatively impact businesses in the UK that are reliant on tourism. Despite this, I cannot escape the feeling that the disjointed approach to emerging from lockdown from political leaders has led to a greater and avoidable negative impact on the small, regional businesses that are so reliant on the visitor economy.

With foreign holidays unlikely but a nation desperate for a change of scene, the UK’s nations could have benefitted from an internal movement of tourists content with experiencing what each country had to offer. That should have been the priority – a lifeline to the small businesses  that depend on tourism – not political point scoring.


Caroline Plumb OBE

Serial entrepreneur, tech innovator, small business expert and one of the 1% of VC-backed female business owners, formerly one of the Prime Minister’s Business Ambassadors, and awarded an OBE in 2016



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