At the mouth of the River Neet lies Bude, a picture-perfect town in north Cornwall close to the Atlantic coast of south-west England. Every summer this tiny place of just over 9,000 residents comes to life, its beaches filling up with surfers and families as they catch the sun against its colourful row of beach huts.
More than 140,000 tourists stayed here in 2017, swelling the crowds in restaurants and bars. Just over 6 per cent of dwellings in the area are second homes, according to the local council, but many more are marketed as short holiday lets.
Data from AirDNA, which tracks the holiday-lets market, shows that in August 2019 there were 611 homes in the Bude area listed on either Airbnb or Vrbo.
This year, holidaymakers are making permanent residents nervous. Fearing an increased risk of transmission of Covid-19, many locals, especially those who are old and vulnerable, have had their lives disrupted as they struggle to avoid the crowds.
“It is really scary,” says Pete, a resident in his seventies, who did not want to give his full name. “I just don’t want to risk it.”
As Britons are encouraged to forgo the beaches of southern Europe in favour of summer staycations, UK second-home hotspots from Cornish villages to mountainous north Wales are bracing themselves for more visitors than usual.
This month, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, urged holidaymakers to opt for staycations, adding that he would take one himself. Last week’s sudden requirement for British holidaymakers returning from Spain to self-isolate for two weeks was a sharp reminder that foreign-holiday plans may fall apart.
Demand for secluded UK getaways is high. Ian Casement, owner of the Canny Brow Barn on the outskirts of Kendal, the gateway to the beautiful Lake District in northern England, says his calendar filled up the week before lockdown lifted. The cottage is usually rented at weekends but now he is receiving bookings for midweek stays too.
“People who stayed with us were supposed to go abroad. The market for staycations is looking optimistic,” he says.
But for second-home owners and investors in 2020, all this extra tourism is also likely to mean heightened tension with local communities. In many UK tourist hotspots, house prices have rapidly outpaced their local areas in recent years, as outsiders invest in holiday homes and short lets.
In the first quarter of 2020, the average house price in Bude was £345,560, according to Hamptons, about 19 per cent higher than the regional average. On Anglesey, an island off the coast of north Wales and another leading tourist destination, it was £218,300, 22 per cent higher than the regional average.
House prices are only part of the problem. Wider cultural differences and locals’ fears for their health and economic futures are also likely to exacerbate tensions between the UK’s second-home owners in the country’s most beautiful districts, and the people who live in them all year round.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought cultural tensions to the fore that have been simmering for decades. In north Wales, resentment between locals, second-home owners and the tourists who stay in them run high at the best of times, says Megan, a Welsh speaker who grew up in Wales. She now lives in England and did not want to give her real name for fear of retribution.
Megan says this tension comes from many years of perceived economic exclusion of the Welsh by the English. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Welsh nationalist group Meibion Glyndwr set fire to hundreds of English-owned second homes in Wales, and that tension is still palpable.
Across the country, quaint rural cottages, often hundreds of years old, can be bought more cheaply than in England and turned into side businesses for their buyers. They are upgraded and converted into rural retreats, then rented out to others, which locals especially resent.
The average price of a property in Wales is £179,577, according to Hamptons — about 28 per cent cheaper than the English average.
Snowdonia National Park in north-west Wales is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The area is also home to a large number of holiday homes — roughly one in 10 properties is owned as a second home.
On Anglesey, just across the Menai Strait, the number of properties listed on either Airbnb or Vrbo has increased from 401 in August 2017 to 1,528 in August 2019, according to AirDNA.
Roger Awan-Scully, a professor of political science at Cardiff University, says cultural tensions between tourists and the native Welsh, particularly those who speak the Welsh language, are real not imagined. He thinks the clichéd perception that everyone switches to Welsh the moment an English tourist steps into a pub is a myth.
But he adds that studies show a substantial majority of people in Wales feel pride in the language — and that it is sometimes demeaned and ridiculed by English speakers.
He thinks the English are partly to blame: “There can be tensions, but what struck me as puzzling and sad is that lots of those who claim strongest adherence to Britain and Britishness, they don’t seem to place much value on the different historic languages.”
Safety vs economy
Local leaders are struggling to balance safety with restarting economies, and many recognise that second-home owners and the tourism they support will be central to managing that successfully.
“I have people crying on both sides: people not wanting people to come, and the tourism sector not sure how long they can survive,” says Llinos Medi Huws, leader of Anglesey council. She stresses the need to respect the impact of the coronavirus to proponents of both sides of the debate.
Anglesey is heavily dependent on tourism, with the sector accounting for more than 20 per cent of its gross value added (GVA), according to a 2011 report by the ONS. The Welsh lockdown lasted longer than in England, with restaurants, pubs and cafés allowed to reopen outside spaces from July 13 and inside spaces from August 3 — the latter nearly a month later than in England.
“Companies are also in despair,” says Huws. Now, the message to tourists has changed from “Anglesey is closed for now” to “Rediscover Anglesey safely”.
“If people can’t go out to eat, it’s a big reason not to go on holiday,” says Ellis Barrie, a chef who co-owns the Marram Grass restaurant on Anglesey. He is in the process of repurposing the business as, thanks to social-distancing rules, his restaurant is “not going to work as a concept”, he says.
With the number of covers down to a quarter and only about seven weeks left in the season, he wants to abandon his taster menu and turn the business into a shop with farm produce and a deli counter. “It’s almost like two winters,” he says, “which for tourist places can be crippling.”
The pressure to reopen local economies is immense. In Cornwall, tourism accounts for about £2bn of the economy and a third of private-sector jobs. Workers in the south-west’s accommodation and food sector are furloughed at the highest rate in Britain, according to the UK government. Of the region’s 200,000 jobs in that sector, 150,000 have been placed on the job-retention scheme.
But not all local residents are desperate for a return to business as usual. Sarah, a teacher from the port town of Exmouth in Devon, who did not want to give her full name, is worried that a rush to reopen could be counterproductive.
“We get a lot of visitors from the north [of England]. Some of these places I know have been virus hotspots,” she says. Were the town to experience a sudden rise in infections and have to go into lockdown again, then “most local businesses would just get through by the skin of their teeth”, she says.
“Policy at the moment is about getting everything going in the short term. If we are going to be exposed to additional risk, there needs to be a plan.”
In Devon, another holiday destination with a permanent population of nearly 800,000 people, two-thirds of businesses have reopened, says Alistair Handyside, former chairman of the South West Tourism Alliance, a lobbying group. Activity to get ready for the summer “is off the scale”, he says. Local businesses “have to be given a chance to reopen and recover”.
A new wave of London buyers?
Much of the animosity towards outsiders across the UK’s tourist areas is explained by a sense that locals are pushed out of the housing market, and that holiday-home buyers and investors from London and the home counties push up prices.
Garry Tregidga of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, says the problem in Cornwall is particularly acute. “Local families are struggling to get on the housing ladder. They feel they are losing out to the other areas of the UK,” he says.
But in the wake of lockdown, some outsiders are looking for a home, not a temporary place to stay. According to Sarah-Jane Bingham-Chick, head of residential sales at Savills Exeter, the number of London-based buyers searching for permanent homes with her agency in the south-west has increased by more than 120 per cent.
Prices have not risen, she says, but she has seen competitive bidding. The speed of sales has also picked up. A property she launched in Salcombe at 3pm one July afternoon had its sale agreed an hour later. One of her London-based clients wanted to sell a second home in Dartmouth but, after spending lockdown there, decided to get rid of his primary residence in London instead.
Perhaps that is just as well. The survival of local economies is likely to depend on residents investing in an area for the long term — whether they live there permanently or not.
“People tend to think of health and economy as binary but they are very connected,” says Murray Johnstone, chairman of Pentire Residents Association in Newquay, another popular holiday spot in Cornwall. “In any community if you don’t have thriving businesses, health will decline.”
With the exception of a few old and vulnerable people, most of the locals he speaks to say they are happy to see tourism return to the area.
“Although we liked it when it was quiet,” he adds. “We don’t often get the place to ourselves.”
This article was amended on August 3 to reflect more fairly the relationship between Welsh speakers and English tourists.
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