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The modern tourism industry has never faced a challenge quite like that thrust upon it in recent months by the coronavirus pandemic. With countries across the world locking down throughout the spring, flights were grounded, and holidays cancelled whi le we grappled with the brand-new concepts of social distancing and self-isolation.

At home, pubs, restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, museums, galleries, theatres, cinemas, parks, and many more amenities that we had previously taken for granted shut their doors to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. And even at the time of writing, with some restrictions lifting, not all these venues will reopen anytime so on, if at all. These pillars of our tourism industry in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, many of them micro or small businesses, rely on the spring to autumn trade from the multitude of visitors who flock to the region from the rest of the UK and beyond, and many will agonisingly miss that sweet spot of the trading year completely.

This is no minor issue, too. In Yorkshire alone, the tourism sector is worth at least £9 billion to the county’s coffers. In Lancashire it is
pushing £5 billion, with Cumbria’s tour ist dividend standing at over £3 billion. These are staggering amounts at stake, but for the first
three months of lockdown, all our local tourist chiefs could do was to essentially broadcast a message that was the exact opposite of that which they are employed to promote.

“We’re called Welcome to Yorkshire,” says James Mason, CEO of Yorkshire’s officia l tourism body, “and for the last three months our message has been ‘please stay away for now’ – dream now, visit later.

Only recently have we been starting to encourage people back to the region, and only in a modest way. You are going against your raison d’etre.”

Even when the government began to lift restrictions and allowed people to travel to take exercise, our tourist hot spots couldn’t take advantage and, in fact, this newfound freedom proved detrimental in many ways.

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Blackpool residents were driven to organise a petition to demand the council close the seafront to visitors following consecutive weekends in May when day trippers descended on the town and left litter strewn across the area. Public toilets were closed, leading to visitors relieving themselves in public, as well as leaving them without adequate facilities to wash their hands. The signatories also cited a lack of proper social distancing as a reason to cordon off one of Britain’s most famous beaches, fearing a spike in Covid-19 cases in the town as a result.

The double-edged sword of tourists returning too soon was also felt in Yorkshire, with places such as Ilkley and Richmond Falls becoming hotspots for those seeking respite from lockdown. “At times it was a double negative for some residents,” says James Mason, “there was an influx of people, toilets weren’t open, car parks in some places weren’t open. People were not able to spend in many local businesses but were cramming local shops that were open for key essentials. It’s been a difficult problem to solve, but we’ve worked really closely with local authorities to get the educational message out there.”

Many of the tourism agencies and attractions around the region threw themselves wholeheartedly into connecting with locals and potential visitors alike on social media, trying to strike the fine balance between keeping their brand in the public eye, but not encouraging an unnecessary and potentially harmful influx. Visit Bradford rebranded in lockdown to Visit Bradford Later, while Visit Blackpool opted for the stark Do Not Visit Blackpool as a temporary moniker.

Museums and galleries in Bradford, Leeds, York and beyond began sharing the stories behind the treasures in their collections with each other and the public through a series of compelling and often hilarious Twitter threads, as well as setting challenges for homeschooled children and their frazzled parents to help eat up some of the long hours of the day stuck within the four walls of home. At times, it almost felt as if the virus that was keeping us all physically separate was, in some ways, also beginning to bring us together.

There is a lot of justified criticism of social media, but it really came into its own as a way of keeping us connected to the cultural landscape of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria both in the early days of the crisis and now we are moving slowly back to normality.

Lisa Durkin, manager of Colne BID, says her organisation is embracing digital avenues to encourage shoppers to return to the Lancastrian town.

“We have recently launched a new www.cometocolne.com website and brand, which we have adapted to a ‘Welcome Back, Come to Colne’ social media and marketing campaign for the re-opening,” Lisa confirms, “we also have a business listing directory that we are currently populating where each business gets its own page and are promoting Colne to locals as well as further afield to get the message out Colne is back open.”

So, what does the future hold as our tourism economy tentatively reopens? Well, it is safe to assume that we will miss out on many international visitors for the remainder of this year. However, if we manage to avoid a second spike, it seems there could be opportunities for our tourist businesses from domestic travellers.

“ACROSS THE BOARD WE’VE SEEN SOME REAL INGENUITY AND ENTREPRENEURIALISM”

Research by Cumbria Tourism found that 50% of respondents expect to take more day trips and overnight stays in the UK over the next 12 months, with 90% feeling particularly comfortable visiting outdoors attractions. This is obviously a huge boost for that particular county, with
its vast open spaces and the fells and lakes that play a huge part in encouraging tourism even in normal times. But it is also encouraging for open air destinations across the north as well, such as Harewood House, where the bird garden, gardens and grounds can offer that same reassurance, and Leyburn’s wonderfully strange Forbidden Corner.

In addition, the Cumbrian survey found that 98% of respondents expected to witness regular cleaning at their destination, with 96% requiring hand sanitiser stations in easy reach and 92% being encouraged to visit attractions where signage bearing social distancing reminders are evident and reservations are in place to keep visitor numbers limited. This is certainly food for thought for any business hoping to welcome back visitors through the doors in 2020.

One thing is for sure and that is that businesses will need to adapt to the ever-changing landscape; something that many have already embraced. In Colne, Lisa Durkin says “a number of our independent businesses did their best to set up in other ways. Eadie’s Kitchen – a café that also sells amazing homemade brownies started baking brownies for home delivery and after a huge success over the first few weeks, it
set up a sub brand of @EadiesBrownies on Facebook and Instagram. They now focus on posting out your brownie box and that means they can sell UK wide – not just in Colne.

“Across the board we’ve seen some real ingenuity and entrepreneurialism,” says James Mason of Welcome to Yorkshire, “the small village breweries that are now selling online that didn’t previously, the way that pubs and restaurants have started doing takeouts. I heard a wonderful phrase yesterday on a webinar, which was ‘by all means sanitise your attraction, but don’t sanitise the customer experience’.”

With that in mind, his advice to tourist attractions is simple, “make it as safe as possible, be clear with your messaging, but at the same time don’t try and sanitise the reason that they come in. If it’s a zoo like the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, if it’s a kids museum like Eureka in Halifax, if it’s the James Herriot visitor attraction, or one of the many wonderful places to visit on the coast, remember why people are coming. Try to underpin it in all your communications – ‘safety is paramount, we’ve taken care of that, you don’t need to worry about that, all you have to worry about is how much you enjoy yourself ’.”

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