Staycation UK: Wish you were here – Oh! You are!
For the first time in a generation, more Britons are likely to holiday at home this year than to go abroad. David Randall and Greg Walton investigate
Sunday 26 July 2009
After 11 months in which Britons have been told that their economy is broke, Parliament corrupt, Prime Minister dysfunctional, and population infected with a potentially lethal flu virus, at last they are getting the summer break they so richly deserve.
And the way they are taking it is marking a fundamental shift in the nation's social habits. For the first time in a generation, more Britons are holidaying in their own country than abroad.
From the Western Isles to the beaches of Brighton, and from the sands of Northumberland to the cliffs of Cornwall, there is hardly a part of the country that is not seeing a substantial swelling of visitor numbers. Hotel groups such as Travelodge are reporting bookings well ahead of last year at resorts and on routes to Scotland and the coast. Major providers of self-catering holidays, such as Hoseasons and Haven, say business is well up on recent years with family accommodation now almost booked up.
Resort after resort is reporting the best trade for years; some areas such as the Isle of Wight expect a rise in visitors that could exceed 50 per cent, and caravan and camping sites are seeing record years. So marked has been the migration to the country's resort areas that tomorrow Debenhams will announce it is shipping extra stock to its branches in seaside towns to try to cope with the "unprecedented" demand there. Other chains are expected to follow suit.
Fully a third of all Britons, and a clear majority of those having a holiday, will this year take their breaks within these shores. And while tourism chiefs recognise that negative factors – such as the unfavourable pound-euro exchange rate and the hassle of security-obsessed airports – play their part, they think something more deep-seated is going on.
First, that in the credit-crunched world, with the reality, or fear, of unemployment a monkey on all our backs, a UK holiday seems a thriftier move, and, if taken spontaneously (as many seem to be doing), allows a swift return home as soon as the budget runs out. Second, there has been an enormous amount of investment in tourist facilities here, from the cluster of little cedar lodges on a Yorkshire farmer's land to millions spent on all-weather facilities at holiday parks and on bringing the infrastructure of major resorts up to snuff.
Our summers are warmer and the UK is a more variedly welcoming place than it has ever been. Festivals, whether of literature, jazz, kites, film, or boats, have brought excitement to many a fading venue; then there are the farm shops, restaurants and boutique hotels that have made holidaying in Britain more pleasurable.
VisitBritain is now beginning to believe that its projection earlier in the summer – that the increase in Britons holidaying in the UK could amount to five million extra people – is being fulfilled. Certainly the evidence from around the country is pointing that way. A sampling of tourism offices around Britain yesterday produced the following enthusiastic responses: "unprecedented demand" (Penrith, Cumbria); "busiest season in five years" (St Ives, Cornwall); "really busy June going into July. More Brits than last year" (Poole, Dorset); "in the past, guests have complained about high prices, but this year people are very positive about the cost" (Winchester); "we had a slow start but now we're having to scout around when looking for accommodation" (Bude, Cornwall); "a great season so far" (Sheringham, Norfolk).
This anecdotal evidence is backed by what the major holiday firms and organisations are finding. Travelodge hotels says that forward bookings at locations such as Edinburgh, Blackpool and Brighton are well ahead of last year. Its spokesman, Nick Dines, said that its roadside hotels, especially on routes to Scotland and the West Country, are "very strong", as are bookings at hotels in resorts such as Blackpool and Scarborough.
Hoseasons, a huge operator taking about one million visitors to UK holidays, said that business was 20 per cent up on last year, which was itself a strong year. Family holiday beds were now in short supply, and its spokesman, Peter Joyner, said the firm was "on the verge of trying to rush round and find accommodation for people". Hoseasons was not alone in reporting that, as well as traditional holiday areas such as the South-east and the West Country, some less obvious locations such as Northumberland and Essex were doing well. "People," he said, "are discovering things and places about their own country that they didn't know about."
One of the ways they are doing that is by taking short breaks, and by camping and caravanning – perhaps the most identifiable boom sector of all. The Camping and Caravanning Club says advance bookings at its sites are 15 per cent better than last year, and at one Haven static caravan site on the south coast, sales of caravans are 70 per cent ahead of last year.
Peter Hampson of the British Resorts and Destinations Association said there was "incredible demand" for budget accommodation from Britons. He also said that the National Trust and English Heritage were seeing booming membership numbers as well as an increase in visitors – in the case of the former, a 20 per cent rise reported in June, and, for the latter, an increase of 25 per cent in visitors to their North-east properties alone. Mr Hampson said: "This is really good news for the UK economy."
That is mirrored by many other attractions, especially in the North. Ullswater Steamers in the Lake District says it is "very busy"; York Minster said its June visitors were 22 per cent up on last year; and the North York Moors centre was 18 per cent up in the first six months of 2009.
In the end, the enduring success of the Great British Holiday Revival will depend on the weather. And, for now, with the Met Office talking of a warmer than usual, if not entirely dry, August, the prospects are looking good. Enjoy the break – we all deserve it.
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