How Yorkshire's tourism sector is facing the biggest crisis in its history
The Covid crisis is presenting the tourism industry in Yorkshire with the greatest crisis in its history. Business Editor Mark Casci looks at the frightening scale of the task ahead.
The past two months should have been boom time for Yorkshire’s tourism industry.
The sunniest April on record gave way and the joint warmest May in history and, under normal circumstances, the region’s beaches, attractions and countryside should have been packed with visitors from all over the world.
However Covid-19 and the lockdown imposed to control it has cruelly intervened to stop all activity dead in its tracks. Hotels and B&Bs have not welcomed guests for weeks. Fish and chip shops are only offering takeaways. Ice cream vans are parked in garages and driveways. And for the region’s manifold pubs and beer gardens, the sound of summer revelry has been replaced with an eerie silence.
For England’s largest county the knock on effect of this loss of earnings is colossal.
Tourism is worth £9bn a year to Yorkshire’s economy and is responsible for the livelihoods of 225,000 people.
It also does not operate in isolation, with its benefits filtering into everything from farming and food manufacturing to high street retail
And yet, like so many other aspects of life that we took completely for granted until a few months ago, Yorkshire’s tourism and hospitality sector is facing an existential threat like never before.
When James Mason took on the chief executive’s role at Welcome to Yorkshire at the start of the year he knew he was inheriting the leadership of an organisation whose future was under threat.
However, he could never have imagined that the sector it represented would be facing a similarly uncertain future, nor that he would be required to actively discourage people from travelling to Yorkshire’s iconic beauty spots for fear of spreading the virus to isolated rural areas during the initial phases of lockdown.
“We don’t know when we can reopen, we don’t know when we can rebuild and recover,” he tells The Yorkshire Post.
“And any organisation or business needs certainty.
“We know there is a boom on the way in tourism, we just don’t know when.”
Welcome to Yorkshire has remained operational during lockdown but has been concerning itself with what life will be like if and when restrictions begin to ease, as is planned for next month.
“We are no longer able to get out and see people to sell tourism. This is a real existential problem.
“You need people to be able to move around, the migration of people within the county has stopped along with nationally and internationally. We rely upon people coming into the county to spend money.
“We have a wonderful product but we can’t access it.
“We can digitally tell people about it but they can’t come. It is almost like we are saying, ‘here’s what you could have won’.”
There are kernels of positivity.
The official Welcome to Yorkshire website saw a 47 per cent increase in visitors during April and May, with 91 per cent of these visitors being people who had never looked at the website before.
Mr Mason says “They are thinking about Yorkshire as a place to come visit and have a holiday here.
“But they don’t when they can come and they don’t know if it’s going to be safe, or as attractive, if you can’t visit a theatre or walk around various attractions.”
Welcome to Yorkshire’s current focus very much lies not only in promoting the county as being the best place to visit in the UK, but also as the safest.
It is already contemplating a mobile phone app which would provide information on hotspots in the area that are suitable for visiting in terms of the numbers of people there.
“Ok this is long term thinking but this is part of the strategy and these are things we might have to accelerate and look for different funding and support for so we can make tourism come back quicker but in a way we want it to be,” he says.
“We can use intelligence, data and research to really influence the traveller and therefore make sure that Yorkshire is the number one place to come, not just because of what it has to offer, but that it is the safest place to come.”
A huge problem the hospitality industry in Yorkshire faces concerns the Government’s regulations on social distancing.
The so-called two metre rule is likely to make thousands of the region’s pubs, cafes, restaurants and attractions unviable.
A review is underway to reduce the requirement to one metre, inline with most other nations.
However many feel this will still not be enough.
David Kerfoot, chair of the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, said he and his team were receiving calls on a daily basis from tourism-related enterprises on the verge of desperation.
“The general public wants to get out there but they need to be confident that where they are visiting is safe, well organised and has people acting in a sensible manner,” he said.
“There are a lot of businesses out there ready to do that. But when it comes to those cafes and pubs with the two metre distancing, let alone a one metre distancing, it’s just a massive challenge on their costs.
“That is so important. But for a pub or a restaurant now, even if they reduce it to one metre distancing, the challenges they face is immense.
“I can see a lot of them thinking, even with one metre, we can’t get anywhere near to covering our overheads and it is potentially time to give up.
“We are hearing lots of horror stories on a daily basis on this issue.”
Mr Kerfoot is convinced that the lack of devolved powers in his patch is a major barrier to its chances of success, something he feels the Covid crisis has underlined.
For a region so reliant on its natural resources for success in terms of tourism and hospitality, the challenge is acute.
““What this is showing is that, yes we have two great cities, but the vast majority of my region is rural and the rural regions are going to take a huge hit. That is proved by the NP11 piece of work which shows us and Cumbira at the bottom.
“In Whitehall terms there are two tiers.
“There are the devolved areas that are the Premier League. They are listened to, they are acted upon.
“And then there are the rest of us.
“I have always said that we have two major challenges, even before Covid. One was the fact we were not devolved and secondly that we were rural. No Government over the last 20 years has really understood the issues of rural areas.”
The Yorkshire appeal to the holidaymakers and day trippers is something that nothing, not even a global pandemic could diminish.
The recent surge in developers of movies and television shows to shoot their footage in the region underscores this and Yorkshire has enjoyed an unprecedented period of global exposure owing to its unique character, culture and scenery.
It is this offering that gives both men hope that the future is bright, whenever it may come.
“It’s easy to entice people,” said Mr Kerfoot.
“If you think of sporting hobbies we are incredible. We have 30 plus miles of historic coastline, with three wonderful traditional seaside towns in Scarborough, Filey and Whitby.
“We have the sun, sea and sand there that can’t be beat. We have places like Ravenscar and Runswick Bay which are just absolute gems.
You then come further inland and you have got an incredible moorland landscape for walking and hiking. And then we have got historic places like the city of York, what a history. Places like Castle Howard and Scampston Hall - amazing places to visit. Then you move towards Swaledale, Wharfedale and our towards Hawes - incredible Dales country.
“As a region there’s nothing like us and we have got everything.”
Mr Mason adds: “We have the very best of everything that the UK can offer, in a county.
“TV tourism is booming in Yorkshire because the whole world is looking at Yorkshire as the perfect playground.
“We can compete with anywhere in the UK at the highest level. We are a country within a county.”
It is clear to many that there are few, if any, places that can rival the beauty and diversity of what Yorkshire has to offer.
The question is how much of the industry that services this will survive the ensuing months.