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Dying for a Holiday?

Tourism is a major contributor to the economy in Cornwall, accounting for 1 in 5 jobs. The industry had already lost Easter revenue estimated at £300 million due to lockdown. Without a resumption of the tourist season, the county was set to lose a further £2.4billion in revenue. So, it would have been reasonable to assume that Cornish folk would have welcomed the lifting of lockdown in early July.

Location Map of Cornwall, UK

Tourism Figure 1 2

However, the lifting of lockdown did not meet with the unanimous approval of Cornwall residents, and on reflection it is not hard to see why.

1. Cornwall had escaped the worst of the pandemic. Infection rates were relatively low. However, local residents felt vulnerable to infection on two counts.

a) There is only one hospital equipped to deal with severe cases (in Truro) and only 18 ICU (intensive care) beds for the whole county.
b) The county has an ageing demographic many of whom had been advised to shield at home.

As a result, local residents were fearful of importing the virus into the county via a wave of visitors from areas with higher infection rates.

2. Locals were alarmed by images of day visitors crowding on to the beaches at places such as Bournemouth (see image below) and the total absence of:

a) Social distancing.
b) The use of face masks.
c) This was behaviour which local residents believed would put their health at increased risk.

Whilst 1 in 5 jobs are dependent on tourism 4 in 5 are not. Add in the significant number of retired people in the county and there is a sizeable majority for whom tourism is a curse rather than a blessing, even in normal times.

Bournemouth Beach Immediately after Lockdown

Tourism Figure 2

Subsequently the arrival of visitors played out to the concerns of locals. Complaints included the following.

  • Lack of social distancing.
  • Lack of face coverings.
  • Visitors congregating in large groups in direct contravention of government advice.
  • Visitors seeming to believe that there was no risk of infection.

Papers quoted locals as being “too scared to go out”, of feeling “forced back into shielding” and of keeping their children away from the beaches and other areas of the town. Some even took their antipathy towards tourists to higher levels (see image below).

One of the more printable signs!

Tourism Figure 3

However, there were also the more usual complaints:

  • Congestion on the roads.
  • Irresponsible parking.
  • Overcrowding of the towns and beaches.
  • Litter in the towns and on the beaches.

Clearly, local residents were understandably concerned about increased risks of infection, but it also brought into sharper focus long-standing concerns and complaints around the impact of tourism.

The sheer numbers descending on Cornwall made social control difficult. Mass tourism has the tendency to impose itself and its behaviour patterns on resident populations who feel powerless as a result. That in turn leads to conflict between those who benefit from tourism and those who suffer its consequences. The result, in Cornwall, is a community pulling in different directions.

By contrast another tourist destination, Islay, an island two hours from the Scottish mainland, exhibited none of the febrile atmosphere or concerns expressed by Cornwall’s resident population (see image below).

Location Map of Islay, UK

Tourism Figure 4 2

Even though the virus was largely absent from the island, there was a much more relaxed attitude towards the lifting of lockdown restrictions. There are a number of reasons to explain why.

1. The number of tourists visiting Islay, even in a normal year is much lower (60,000 as against 4 million for Cornwall). It is not a mass tourism destination. Given that, and its separation from the mainland, it was never likely to get a sudden influx of visitors.

2. Lockdown lasted much longer. Travel restrictions to the islands weren’t lifted until mid-July. Even then the flow of visitors to the Island was relatively small.

3. The main event, the annual whiskey festival which attracts upwards of 30,000 visitors to the island at the end of May had already been cancelled.

4. There was no pressure to re-open tourist facilities.

a) The island enjoys full employment (whiskey distilling and agriculture).
b) Tourism, whilst a useful addition to the island economy, is not a key economic sector.
c) Some businesses were content to rely on government financial support (e.g. furlough) rather than re-open (see image below). The season was simply written off.

5. The population is only 3200. It is a small, tight knit community with a (seemingly) unified approach to the threat of COVID-19. The bottom line if you like for Islay was that health came before profit.

Closed for the season (near Kintra)

Tourism Figure 5

Final Thoughts

In the end the spike in cases Cornish residents worried about didn’t materialise, perhaps because locals simply avoided contact with visitors as much as they could and where they couldn’t, followed government advice; plus the tourist industry, in Cornwall, recouped at least some of the lost revenue. Whether all Cornish folk felt it justified the risk is an open question.

In the face of the threat from COVID-19 the lifting of lockdown and resumption of tourism to Islay was manageable and there was a perception that the situation was under control. The same could not be said for the residents of Cornwall.

The tourist season is over for another year. But what about 2021? The coronavirus will still be with us, and it is possible that foreign travel restrictions will still be in place. So, the “staycation” is likely to become part of the “new normal”. Will this put more of our holiday destinations under pressure? If so, it will be interesting to see how their residents react.

Note: The author of this blog visited Islay in early September 2020. Comments and perceptions are based on conversations with local residents.

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