Towards the end of 2020, we looked at the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic had changed the tourism industry at the national and international levels. A host of factors have made travelling overseas considerably riskier, in terms both of health and finances. As a consequence, many Britons had little choice last year but to take a UK-based holiday.
In 2021, things are a little different. A nationwide vaccination programme has begun, which should see infection and transmission rates falling – if not steadily, then at least gradually. And as more people get the jab and fewer people find themselves hospitalised, so confidence should return to the travel industry.
The impacts of this are most likely to be felt first in the domestic market. It will take time for British tourists to regain their full faith in the safety and convenience of overseas travel. For millions, the revised health-screening procedures at airports will be a mystery and perhaps somewhat daunting. Similarly, after more than a year of being reminded about the importance of social distancing, few will relish the prospect of sitting for hours in close confinement inside an aircraft.
This is to say nothing of the other risks: fast-changing government restrictions on travel to certain destinations; foreign authorities changing their policies about arrivals from different countries; inbound and outbound quarantine arrangements; and the threat of hefty hotel bills for those forced to isolate on their arrival in the country.
Travel in 2021
Much has been made of the surge in overseas holiday bookings that followed the prime minister’s announcement of a ‘road map’ out of lockdown. It certainly precipitated an upsurge in bookings, but the international travel industry is still a long way from returning to normal patterns of demand.
In 2021, we can expect residual concerns about the coronavirus to bolster the domestic holiday industry. In January, ThisIsMoney interviewed a range of UK holiday companies and saw a clear pattern of growing demand for ‘staycations’.
In the article, HolidayCottages.co.uk reported “a marked increase in demand for holidays since (mid-January)” and Center Parcs said it was seeing “lots of interest and bookings for breaks later in the year.” Forest Holidays said that bookings were up 63% compared to its usual annual patterns, and Haven Holidays said that reservations were up 40%. For Hoseasons, the figure was +67% for summer bookings, +50% for Cottages.com and +47% for Booking.com.
Demand from Overseas
It seems clear from these figures that demand from British holidaymakers will be very substantial this year. However, the corollary is that bookings from overseas customers are likely to be well down. Partly, foreign travellers may have their own concerns about taking flights abroad, but they will also be factoring in Britain’s woeful record on Covid infection rates. In January, Britain overtook the Czech Republic to claim the highest per capita Covid death rate in the world.
Internationally, the UK has developed an unenviable reputation. In December, the New York Times memorably described the country as “Plague Island” and as CNN reported, “UK travellers are still banned from much of the world - including EU countries - because of the homegrown variant (of Covid-19).” According to predictions made at the time by VisitBritain, foreign visitor numbers were expected to be only 41% of their pre-Covid levels, and spending in 2021 was forecast to be only 32% of the 2019 figure.
For those of us living in Britain, in a culture that has grown used to the pandemic and which is perhaps growing cautiously optimistic about the rapid roll-out of effective vaccines, it’s easy to forget how other countries see us. Overseas, many newspapers express sympathy for the UK’s plight, and such statements will inevitably have an effect on consumer sentiment and people’s willingness to travel here.
This may help to explain why, in its 2021 Tourism Forecast, VisitBritain writes: “Our revised central scenario for inbound tourism in 2021 is for 11.7 million visits, up 21% on 2020 but only 29% of the 2019 level; and £6.6 billion to be spent by inbound tourists, up 16% on 2020 but only 23% of the 2019 level. This is a significant downgrade from the original forecast for 2021, which was run in early December.”
Longer Term Prospects
In the short-term, Britain’s tourist businesses can expect steadily growing demand from domestic holidaymakers but subdued demand from overseas. However, as vaccines take effect, that pattern should change.
In early 2020, before the pandemic, Britain was ranked second in the league table of European holiday destinations. Foreign tourists reported a number of reasons for that popularity: scenic countryside, history and heritage, and numerous vibrant cities, many of them rich in culture. None of those attractions have disappeared, so once the pandemic’s impacts diminish, it’s likely that the UK’s tourist markets will recover relatively quickly.
For investors with short-stay property to let, and for whom investment is a long-term venture, a short-term dip will be unwelcome but it shouldn’t mark the beginning of longer, downward trend. 2021 will probably be dominated by robust domestic demand, but there should be a steady improvement in foreign visitor numbers in 2022 and beyond.
VisitBritain notes that it expects “the start of a recovery from May 2021 from some European markets … followed by a gradual recovery in the summer and autumn. In general, European inbound markets are forecast to recover quicker than long haul markets… It is assumed that in the UK and most advanced markets, the majority of the adult population will be vaccinated in 2021 and that by the end of the year, Covid-19 will be endemic and controlled rather than pandemic.”
In the meantime, while Covid-19 remains a significant consideration, it will continue to shape preferences for the type of vacation that people seek.
In its Inbound Covid-19 Sentiment Tracker, which gauges foreign travellers’ intentions, VisitBritain finds that there is a clear swing towards more outdoor-based holidays that present fewer risks of contact. Other surveys have detected similar preferences amongst British holidaymakers; a pronounced shift towards coastal and countryside destinations that prioritise space, scenery and opportunities for active pursuits.
In VisitBritain’s survey, 74% of all respondents agreed with the statement: “I will look for less crowded places to visit, even if it means “missing” must-see attractions.” The organisation also notes that a high proportion of foreign travellers are still considering visiting “multiple nations within Britain.”
Of those intended destinations, Wales and Scotland are perceived to present the lowest risks. Cities will still be fairly popular, it seems, but notably less than in 2019. Conversely, demand for open space and/or multiple destination trips has undoubtedly risen.
Preference % of respondents
Multiple locations 33
The same survey observes that hotels will remain popular but “there is also a high interest in self-catered accommodation, perhaps indicating a desire to limit interactions with other guests in a Covid context.”
The Welsh Tourist Offering
Against this background, it seems clear that the Welsh tourism industry will have a lot to offer this year. Foreign visitors may be fewer, but a rise in domestic demand should go a long way to offset that, particularly in areas that best match that growing preference for space and physical activity.
In February 2021, Wales’ first minister, Mark Drakeford said that parts of the tourism industry could reopen by Easter and that 2021 would be "the year to take advantage of everything Wales has to offer."
In the same month, the BBC interviewed numerous Welsh tourism businesses, including a camp site owner who said that enquiries “went around the bend (in the first week of February) with a lot of customers from Wales looking to holiday closer to home.” He added that “daily bookings and enquiries at this time of year had already doubled from 25 to 50, but they shot up to 100 on Friday night "due to Mr Drakeford's positivity".”
Welsh Tourist Attractions
In its 2021 “Year of the Outdoors” marketing campaign, VisitWales lists some of the key attractions expected to be most popular in the coming year. These include:
- Three spectacular National Parks:
- the Brecon Beacons;
- Pembrokeshire Coast; and
- Five designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB):
- the Clwydian Range;
- the Llŷn Peninsula;
- the Gower Peninsula; and
- the Wye Valley
- The 870-mile Wales Coast Path
- Three National Trails:
- Glyndwr’s Way;
- Offas Dyke Path; and
- the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
- 40 Blue Flag award-winning beaches
- A network of International Dark Sky Reserves and Dark Sky Parks
- More than 600 castles
- The fastest zip line in the world
- Dolgarrog – home to an inland surfing lagoon and adventure park
- Wildlife reserves and conservation zones
- A national network of cycle paths
- Countless opportunities for climbing, hiking and mountain biking
Tourism in North Wales
It’s notable how many of these principal attractions are located in North Wales, which typically sees some of the highest concentrations of tourist visits and spending.
Beginning at the northern seaside resorts of Rhyl and Prestatyn, and running all the way down to Portmeirion, Harlech and Barmouth, the coastline of North Wales is regularly punctuated by tourist honeypots. Castles, beaches and historic towns all compete for the visitor’s attention, while further inland, there’s a wealth of wild country for walkers, climbers, campers, cyclists and more.
Besides the usual family holiday activities, North Wales offers opportunities for white water rafting, kayaking, surfing and various other water sports, and it’s regarded as one of the best places for rock climbing anywhere in Britain.
In recent years, the region has set out to consolidate its status as a centre for outdoor pursuits, and private sector investments have greatly extended the tourist offering.
North Wales.com has previously reported that, once: “attractions were driven by visitors who wanted something to do whist they were here. Now, our attractions drive visitors to Wales.” It’s a fair point. Attractions such as Zip World have become a focal point for family holiday plans – a “must do” item on their summer wish list.
The same is true of sites across North Wales, including Anglesey’s high-speed Rib Ride tours, and Adventure Parc Snowdonia, which is home to a hugely popular inland surf centre, zip lines, a skate park and gorge-walking excursions.
Right across the region, there are tourist-focused businesses that cater for almost every conceivable outdoor pursuit, from golf to bushcraft, fishing to jet-skiing.
The point of this is not simply to list regional attractions, but to illustrate how well North Wales is positioned to capitalise on changing trends amongst tourist visitors. For many, 2021 could mark their first visit to the area, their decisions perhaps being driven by concerns about international travel restrictions and safety, or simply by growing curiosity.
In the short term, this influx of new domestic visitors will provide a much-needed boost to the industry. However, it could also set a foundation for a significant upturn in popularity over the years and decades to come. As more people come to recognise all that North Wales has to offer, so it becomes more likely that some of them will establish new family traditions and choose to revisit year after year.
Many of Wales’ tourist visitors already return annually, either to a favourite resort or to explore new areas. With more Britons choosing North Wales in 2020 and 2021 – many for the first time – demand from these recurrent visitors is very likely to grow in 2022 and beyond. In short, there’s a good chance that the total size and value of the domestic tourism market could grow.
This in itself will be good news for those with holiday properties to let in the region. However, that upward trend amongst domestic visitors is also likely to coincide with a gradual return to normal patterns of demand from overseas.
The new preference for outdoor-based holidays might also prompt a wider, international change in the kinds of vacations that people choose. Growing awareness of the need to stay fit and active could be a factor, but so too could the simple act of trying something new; discovering an enjoyable alternative to the usual week or two of sun, sea and sand.
For investors with property in the region, or for those considering a new investment, this would be a very positive outcome. If outdoor pursuits come to be more widely sought as the basis for regular annual holidays, few regions will be better placed to take advantage of that than North Wales.
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