A sunny day in Blackpool © Paul Ellis/AFP

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To England’s battered tourism industry, July 4 looks like independence day, with pubs, hotels and theme parks hoping to reopen after 16 weeks of lockdown. But for Donna Hannigan it is a day she dreads.

The Blackpool resident is frightened that tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors will bring coronavirus with them to the north of England’s largest seaside resort.

“It’s scary,” said the former hotel worker who lost her job during lockdown. “We could be talking about a second wave [of infections]. There’s already been a few times when I have had to come home from a walk early because there are too many people about and you cannot keep your distance.”

Ms Hannigan’s fears encapsulate the dilemma for resorts across the UK. If they remain closed, tens of thousands of jobs will be under threat but if they reopen too fast, people fear there will be a surge in Covid-19 cases.

In Blackpool, where tourism accounts for £1.8bn of the town’s £3.6bn annual economy, with 18.2m visitors travelling there in 2018, more than 16,000 residents have signed a petition to close Blackpool to visitors.

But tourism businesses, many down to their last cash reserves having lost the crucial Easter and May bank holiday season, are desperate to reopen. According to the government’s lockdown easing road map, this is scheduled to be on July 4. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, is due to update parliament on Tuesday on how far restrictions on the hospitality industry, including social distancing measures, will be eased.

Amanda Thompson, Blackpool Pleasure Beach owner, says her family business has lost a third of its income for the year. © Stephen Lee

“We have lost a third of our income for the year,” said Amanda Thompson, whose family owns Blackpool Pleasure Beach, a seafront theme park that opened in 1895. She said that even if the attraction could open with social distancing cut to one metre, the 60,000 capacity would be cut by half.

VisitBritain, the national tourist agency, estimates that tourism spending will fall by about £22bn this year, down from £91.6bn in 2019. In seaside communities where tourism is one of few local industries, the problem is particularly acute. The National Coastal Tourism Academy, an industry body, estimates that British coastal towns will lose £10.3bn in revenues this year, a 40 per cent drop. About 7 per cent of seaside tourism businesses have already been forced to close.

“The summer season is critical,” said Patricia Yates, VisitBritain’s director of strategy. “Thirty per cent of summer holidays and spending happen in [July and August].”

In Snowdonia, graffiti has appeared telling tourists to “go home”. © Carl Recine/Reuters

Like many operators, Ms Thompson wants value added tax to be lifted from tickets for the rest of the year and will extend evening hours and open at weekends until December for the first time. With that, the park could just about break even over the year, she said.

VisitBritain is also lobbying for an additional bank holiday to coincide with the October half-term.

The easing of lockdown restrictions has already seen a surge in day-trippers to coastal areas and so-called “honeypots” such as the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and East Anglia.

Chart showing that in many English districts, domestic tourism spending accounts for more than a fifth of local GDP, and one in eight workers is employed in the food and accommodation sector

In many areas, locals are unhappy at the influx. In Cornwall, local camper van owners have put signs in their vehicles’ windows saying that they live in the county for fear of being targeted, while in Snowdonia in Wales, graffiti has appeared telling tourists to “go home”.

But with the government encouraging domestic vacations to compensate for the expected drop in foreign visitors, holiday hungry Britons appear to be responding with enthusiasm. Google Trends data show that “UK staycation” searches are approximately five times what they usually would be at this time of year. 

Hotel bookings in Blackpool, for example, were up 200 per cent week on week in the first week of June, well above the 45 per cent increase in bookings nationwide, according to holiday booking site Lastminute.com

Chart showing that Google searches by Britons for "UK staycation" have soared in recent weeks, and are now more than five times the usual level for this time of year

For Mike Bell, deputy leader of North Somerset unitary council, whose region includes the resort towns of Weston-super-Mare, Portishead and Clevedon, the preponderance of elderly residents is a challenge. Many former Victorian hotels have been converted into care homes, whose inhabitants are more susceptible to the disease.

On hot summer weekends, Weston’s beach can attract as many as 100,000 visitors, a number that Mr Bell said made social distancing nearly impossible, particularly at pinch points such as car parks.

The beach at Weston-super-Mare © Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty

Already facing budget deficits of millions of pounds due to the cost of additional services required to combat the virus, councils face walking a narrow tightrope between business interests and local concerns.

“We don’t think we’re really ready for a big influx of visitors during the summer season,” said Tim Dwelly, Cornwall county council’s economic director. “That said, we are very worried about the businesses that rely on this income so the dilemma for us is do we ask people to come later.”

Operators are nonetheless preparing for the mooted July 4 reopening date.

Echo Lu, chief executive of Haulfryn, which operates 26 holiday parks across the UK, plans to reopen the venues in stages, with people that own homes able to return first. Visitors will have to check in online and on-site restaurants will only be open for delivery.

She is exploring “Covid safe” activities where customers are far apart such as water skiing and archery.

But no one associated with the tourism industry is in any doubt that even if everything goes well, many businesses will not survive the summer.

Alan Cavill, Blackpool council’s director of regeneration, expects only half the usual number of visitors to Blackpool Tower, which it owns, with the drop having a big impact on cafés and pubs. “There will be casualties,” he warned.

Prolonged lockdown no laughing matter for amusement arcades

For seaside amusement arcades, the last meaningful revenue came in September. Surviving the lean winter season is a trial that operators are used to but facing the equivalent of three winters is “catastrophic”, said John White, chief executive of the British Amusement Catering Trade Association.

“September through to Easter you don’t make any money at all and then away you go but we have lost it all,” he said.

In coastal resorts alone, amusement arcades packed with penny slot machines and teddy grabbers represent £1.8bn to the UK economy and 18,000 jobs.

Joseph Cullis, the fourth-generation owner of arcades in the Scottish seaside towns of Saltcoats and Largs, said the virus arrived at the worst possible time. “We’d invested in new equipment, quite a bit of money, and then Covid-19 hit the country so our summer season has been devastated,” he said.

Normally the two arcades, which have machines where pennies fall from trays on to prizes, small children’s rides and “whackers” where people smack a button with a hammer to win a prize, turn over about £1m each year with 60 to 70 per cent of that weighted toward the summer.

But with Scottish schools due to return on August 11 and leisure businesses unable to reopen until July 15 in Scotland, the season has been severely curtailed. Mr Cullis will also have to limit visitors and invest extra in cleaning machines that players will regularly touch.

In England, arcade owners were incensed that the government backtracked on a plan to let them open with non-essential retailers last Monday, with only two days notice. Most had already invested in protective gear and extra cleaning.

“We are incredibly angry, incredulous and indignant,” said Mr White.

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