Summertime and the livin’ is getting a bit easier?

April 1, 2021

One of the only things that has made the first months of 2021 bearable is the hope that the rest of the year will be much better. A good summer, for both people and businesses, will be where this hope lives and dies. If the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown is anything to go by, then we could be in for quite a summer indeed. Outdoor hospitality – at the time of print – due to open by April 12, indoor hospitality and accommodation services by May 17, and all other restrictions on public life lifted by June 21 – it’s easy to see why North East tourism bosses are feeling bullish about the months ahead. Here, Northumberland National Park’s Jean Davidson tells Richard Dawson of how a new generation has discovered the great outdoors, while NewcastleGateshead Initiative’s Ian Thomas provides the latest figures on the health of the North East tourism economy and explains why recovery needs to come fast.

Take a stroll along pretty much any stretch of North East coastline today and you’ll find that you weren’t the only one who was fancying a bit of fresh air.

Beaches at Roker, Seaburn, South Shields, Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and elsewhere are covered in more footprints than at any time since the 1950s.

The so-called golden age of going to the seaside conjures images of smartly dressed couples and families wading through the crowds trying to find a sunlit spot of sand to sit on, or of them strolling along the promenade with a bag of chips wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.

Such images were until recently only available in black and white – postcards from a bygone era before foreign holidays and cheap air travel.

But since the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to our international escapades and confined us to our houses for weeks on end, it seems we’ve rediscovered our appetite for sea and sand closer to home.

The crowds have returned to the North East’s many seaside towns, which is all the more compelling when you consider we’ve just emerged from the coldest months of the year.

All it’s taken on a cold Saturday morning is a crack of sun peering through the winter clouds to draw people out in their droves.

In the warmer months of last year, it was much the same story in the countryside.

Jean Davidson, chair of the Northumberland National Park Authority, says: “Last summer, the park authority had some of its highest visitor levels in decades.”

Again, the parallels with the 1950s are obvious.

In 1949, an Act of Parliament established National Parks across the UK as places to conserve the natural beauty of the countryside and provide recreational opportunities for the public.

In the subsequent years, there was an explosion of interest in the North East countryside from the Cleveland Hills to the Cheviots, and a new generation of ramblers and strollers was born.

Jean says: “National Parks came about after the Second World War when people were suffering, and they were called the nation’s lungs.”

The parks are still serving that same purpose 70 years later, inspiring another new generation and supporting people’s physical and mental wellbeing after a period of suffering.

“In Northumberland, we have seen a lot more younger people coming to the national parks and members of the BAME community coming out, which has been a huge positive because we want to be available for everybody in society,” says Jean.

The way in which people have rediscovered the great outdoors, whether it be at the coast or in the countryside, is one of the few positives to have come out of this pandemic.

It’s also a trend that bodes well for the North East tourism economy this summer, which has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Recent analysis from the NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI) estimates that tourism and hospitality businesses in the North East will have lost £3 billion in revenue by May 17 – the date proffered by the Government for their full reopening.

In the first three months of 2021 alone, the hospitality and tourism sector was estimated to have lost £402 million.

It’s a stark reminder of just how challenging the national lockdown has been for companies that rely on face-to- face interaction.

NGI predicts that around 30,000 tourism jobs have been lost throughout the region in the last 12 months.

Such figures underline the need for a strong season this summer.

On that front, there is reason to be optimistic.

With the outlook for international travel looking increasingly uncertain as other countries falter with their vaccination campaigns, raising the prospect of hotel quarantines upon returning to the UK, many people
are instead looking at UK holiday destinations.

Ian Thomas, director of leisure tourism and research at NGI, says: “In the survey we undertook, more than half of respondents said they did not plan on travelling abroad this year, while one in four told us they plan on taking more UK breaks.

“We are also seeing a significant surge in national coach tours and organisations like Parkdean Resorts are reporting huge spikes in enquiries and bookings.”

As well as people from elsewhere in the UK holidaying in the North East, there’s also likely to be high numbers of the region’s natives filling up hotels, hospitality and leisure and tourism hotspots in the months ahead, as people look to stay local and exercise their new- found fondness for the diverse offering on their doorstep.

“Judging by what we have seen, the region could be in for a bumper summer,” says Ian.

“Many of our self-catering properties are already full and we anticipate seeing lots of people heading to the coast and the open spaces our countryside offers.”

Jean adds: “We expect we will have a significant influx of tourists into Northumberland this summer and, on the whole, businesses are positive that they’re in for a very good season.”

From the looks of it, demand is certainly not going to be an issue for the North East hospitality and tourism sector.

Where the problem may arise is in figuring out how to create enough capacity for that demand while remaining within the limitations that coronavirus forces on operators to ensure they are trading in a COVID-19 secure way.

Anyone who has visited a tourism or hospitality venue in the last year will remember the additional but necessary bureaucracy that such endeavours occasioned.

To go pretty much anywhere, visitors had to book, often weeks or months in advance, to secure a table for dinner, drinks and dancing, with even longer lead times if you were looking at a room for the night.

Big, long queues were also a common feature at cafes, bars and pubs, as staff tried to stay within their capacity limits, separating tables out so that each were at least two metres apart from the next.

That’s not to mention the additional cleaning time needed after every customer, making sure all surfaces are disinfected and taking on additional service responsibilities to minimise contact between consumers.

Jean says: “There are an awful lot of things businesses are having to do, which they didn’t have to do before the pandemic.

“Every pound is therefore going to be a bit harder to earn because there are only so many of these costs you can pass on to your customers.”

It’s frustrating that COVID-19 will continue to affect businesses even when lockdown restrictions have ended, and it emphasises the need for operators to learn to live alongside the virus, as indeed many have done.

Capacity issues aside, it is increasingly likely the second half of 2021 is going to be worlds apart from the first, allowing firms to recoup some of their losses and get firmly back on the recovery path.

Ian adds: “With the potential for all social distancing measures to be lifted by the school summer holidays, there is a real opportunity for a fantastic second half of the year, which includes the Great North Run, Magic Weekend and the Rugby League World Cup.”

We have had false dawns before in this pandemic and, as the Prime Minister and Health Secretary are at pains to remind us, there are no guarantees that the roadmap out of lockdown will move ahead as planned.

But if the summer of 2021 really does deliver on its promises, it will benefit not just beleaguered tourism and hospitality businesses, but all of us who have had a rotten 12 months and could really do with something to smile about.

Ian concludes: “Our tourism and hospitality businesses are the places where we make our memories, where we go for special occasions, where we spend time with family and friends.

“Seeing them open and having a summer where we can enjoy them will bring the smiles back to everyone’s faces.”