The economic catastrophe unleashed by lockdown came into sharp focus today as it was revealed that the UK is officially in the largest recession on record. One of the hardest hit sectors is, of course, the tourism industry and many UK attractions are facing an uncertain future after three-month closures were followed by tepid reopenings.
While the full scale of the global crisis is unlikely to be realised for some time, the impact has already been seismic for attractions up and down the country. At the end of July, the National Trust announced that it expects to lose £200 million this year and would be making up to 1,200 redundancies.
In a message to National Trust staff, Director-General Hilary McGrady said: “Our charity has survived so long – through two world wars and a number of economic downturns, thanks to staff, volunteers and supporters. We would not be making these savings had we not exhausted every other possibility. We need to act now to ensure we are sustainable in the future.”
Also badly hit is Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), which runs six sites including The Tower of London and Kensington Palace. It has confirmed a voluntary redundancy scheme is in place with compulsory layoffs likely to follow, after a projected £98 million loss this year. Chief executive John Barnes said: “Historic Royal Palaces is a self-funded charity. We depend on visitors for 80 per cent of our income. We are heartbroken it has come to this.”
The Tower of London’s Beefeater guards are among those likely to be affected by the job cuts – the first time the guards have faced redundancy since the unit was established by Henry VII in 1485. The site reopened in July but is only able to welcome 1,000 people each day, due to coronavirus safety measures. In normal times, this number would be 12,000.
Down in Conwall, The Eden Project has announced it will cut up to 40 per cent of jobs, citing ‘new normal’ safety measures amongst other issues. Executive director David Harland said: “Social distancing is here for the foreseeable future and this means that as we enter what is our busiest period of the year, for safety reasons we are capping our peak visitor capacity at around one-third of that in a normal summer. This will continue to hit our income hard because we are so reliant on summer trade.”
Questions have also been raised about whether Britons are comfortable visiting indoor venues, where the virus is more easily transmitted. Visit Britain’s latest consumer sentiment survey suggests that people are 10 times less likely than usual to visit covered or indoor attractions such as museums. Somewhat surprisingly, the report suggests people are more comfortable with visiting a restaurant. Conversely, those surveyed were 15 times more likely to visit outdoor attractions like theme parks or gardens.
Many smaller attractions have already buckled under the pressure of the pandemic. In Torquay, the Living Coasts aquarium has permanently shut after 20 years of bringing penguins, seals and puffins to the English Riviera. Meanwhile, The Canterbury Tales attraction in Kent has also shut after 35 years, its website sadly stating: “The stories still live on in Chaucer’s immortal words.” These largely unnoticed closures are echoed in towns and cities across the country.
There is no doubt that from the big-hitters to local favourites, the UK’s attractions are on the brink. Bernard Donoghue, the Director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), paints a bleak picture.
He says: “While many visitor attractions are seeing very good take-up for their pre-booked slots, and good spend when visitors do come, the numbers are just a fraction of what they would normally receive at this time of year.
“Typically many attractions are opening at between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of normal capacity in order to adhere to physical distancing requirements.”
He emphasises the importance of the loss of “three crucial bank holidays” which forced attractions “to eat through their reserves and profits from last year leading to inevitable redundancy decisions.”
Mr Donoghue is particularly concerned with seasonal attractions such as parks, gardens, zoos and safari parks, which are in a race against time to make up some of their lost income before the weather turns. “After the end of September, their next surge of visitors will be Easter next year. Many attractions, therefore, will experience three winters this year.”
Ultimately, he feels the only solution is increased Government support: “We are asking for a continuation of the furlough scheme for the tourism sector, which was hit first, hit hardest and will take the longest to recover, and for specific financial aid to ensure that our smaller crown jewels are saved from going into administration and the people who curate, protect and maintain them, are supported too.”