On a cloudless May morning, the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth on Englands east coast looks postcard perfect, but its deserted – the shops are shuttered and the beachside carparks closed. A scattering of lone joggers and cyclists make their way along the promenade, known as the “golden mile”, while one beach hut serves takeaway coffees and ice-creams.
While the UK has begun its first tentative steps towards easing lockdown restrictions, foreign leisure travel is still expected to be off the table for some time. Could a gradual reopening of the economy throw a lifeline to Britains struggling tourism industry, provided the virus is brought under control when the peak school summer holiday season begins?
For now, Great Yarmouth and the county of Norfolk hope the first weekend since the government began to relax travel restrictions in England doesnt bring an influx of visitors. Visit East of Englands website alerts users “now is not the time for tourism”, and the region is not alone in issuing such warnings.
The Welsh government has told residents from across the border not to visit, even for exercise, Englands national parks are asking people not to rush back, and a Scottish tourism boss has said the country may be closed to tourists all summer.
Turning people away from Englands eastern counties is not a position Pete Waters, executive director for Visit East of England, ever expected to find himself in, given its importance for the local economy.
“The Norfolk visitor economy is bigger than Cornwalls,” Waters says with some pride, listing the county’s attractions from seaside resorts and boating on the Norfolk Broads to the city of Norwich. The industry, he says, contributes £3.3bn to the countys economy, providing employment for almost a fifth of the population.
“Tourism businesses are desperate to reopen provided it is safe for residents and visitors, and as long as it is financially viable to do so,” said Waters.
Herbert Gray and his father, also called Herbert, have prepared their confectionery shop Sweet Sensation for the first weekend of trading since the end of February. The counters and serving windows are now covered with perspex screens, all payments will be contactless, and purchases delivered through a hatch.
If the trial weekend goes well, they aim to reopen the familys five other shops, selling takeaway coffee and fish and chips, in June.
“We need to get back to business, as long as I can keep myself and my family safe,” said 39-year-old Herbert, adding: “we want to keep people away from Great Yarmouth, but for the locals, we are doing them a disservice not being open.”
Nationally, the stakes are high: the hospitality sector, which includes tourism, is worth £130bn to the UK economy, employing 3.2 million people. The sunny Easter weekend would have normally jump-started the tourist season, which runs until September, but this years shutdown left many of the sectors small- and medium-sized businesses counting their losses over Easter and the two May bank-holiday weekends.
Nick and Aileen Mobbs were on track for their best-ever year after three decades at the Imperial Hotel at the northern end of the Great Yarmouth town beach, until lockdown hit and they had to cancel £200,000 worth of bookings between April and June.
Nick, the third generation of his family to run the Victorian hotel, isnt sure whether they will able to reopen in time to catch the key July and August trade, or even whether visitors will want to return. “If we dont get a decent bite at the summer cherry, we wont have a comfort blanket for winter,” adds Aileen.
The Jay family are hoping to salvage part of the summer season at the Hippodrome Circus, the towns distinctive turreted brick building which 1960s rocknroll drummer and band leader Peter Jay bought in 1979.
“We know we will be the last piece in the jigsaw,” says Peters son Ben, the circuss general manager. “Pubs, clubs, restaurants and leisure will be last.” They are working out how to redesign their circus spectaculars for a third of the usual audience, with groups sitting far apart in the auditorium.
The business enjoyed its most successful year in 2019, giving 76-year-old Peter hope that foreign travel restrictions may spark a revival for traditional UK resorts. “In the last two or three years people got fed up with all the airport hassle and the staycations had come back, people were rediscovering the British seaside,” he said.
Twenty miles inland from Great Yarmouth, next to the Broads, Ian Russell, the owner of Wroxham Barns visitor attraction, is more circumspect. “The current situation is hellish. We are haemorrhaging cash although most of our staff are furloughed,” Russell said.
He fears the greatest challenge lies ahead for his childrens farm. “Operating with social distancing, our turnover in the peak months will be 30% of what it was – it may be even worse than that,” he said.
Visit East of England and other trade organisations are calling for 12-month VAT exemptions for tourism businesses to ensure their survival through autumn and winter months, when many are shut.
Russell said the thought of having hardly any visitors until next Easter was terrifying, adding: “We should be preparing for boom time – [for] British people who cant or dont wish to go abroad. But the irony is that all the places they would love to enjoy wont be available to them.”