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Boris Johnson is coming under growing pressure to deliver a fresh multi-million pound package of support for the UK’s tourism industry to ensure its survival after suffering “three winters in a row” because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The prime minister is expected to announce shortly whether domestic tourism can reopen as planned on 4 July, with voices across the sector urging him to act quickly on a decision which has already come too late for many businesses to prepare.
Now a cross-party group of MPs representing holiday areas are joining with industry bodies in calling for an extension of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s support schemes – such as grants, loans and furlough payments – for as much as six months to the spring of 2021, when they can expect revenues from bookings to start flowing again.
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Tourism Alliance director Kurt Janson told The Independent the sector – which employs 3.2 million, with 80 per cent currently relying on Mr Sunak’s job retention scheme – risks “mass closures and redundancies” with as many as 2 million jobs in the balance.
“The tourism industry has specific problems because it operates on a feast and famine basis, with businesses making enough during the spring and summer to see them through the winter,” said Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron, whose Westmorland and Lonsdale seat takes in part of the Lake District, where 80 per cent of employment is in hospitality and tourism.
“Covid-19 came just at the end of the famine, and it closed everything down just as the feast should have been beginning. If we get a partial reopening from 4 July it will allow businesses to make some income over the summer, but when we get to November when the support schemes have all run out, they are knackered, because the usual summer feast has just been a picnic and you are really in a three-winters-in-a-row scenario.”
Mr Farron said that the precise combination of loans, grants or other forms of support was up for discussion, but there was no doubt that a significant financial package was needed and would pay dividends in the longer term.
“Withdrawing support in the autumn may cost slightly less in the short term than continuing with furloughs and grants, but if we just let everybody go to the wall, we will have issues with soaring Universal Credit payments and poverty and the blow to people’s dignity and we will have to rebuild the hospitality and tourism industry over years, rather than having it mothballed and ready to go in the spring. There isn’t a cheap option here – either way you are spending hundreds of millions or billions of pounds.
“I’m sure they will come up with something, but my fear is it will just be a marketing package – there’s no point marketing if you don’t have an industry left.”
In Cornwall, Conservative MP Steve Double told The Independent that any delay beyond 4 July would create a need for “major support” from government for the tourism sector, in a county where it supports more than 30 per cent of private sector jobs.
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“We would be having to look at something along the lines of the original package that was made available which has kept thousands of businesses afloat,” he said. “What I am hearing time and again is that that money is now gone and if they aren’t able to start taking in revenue, there are going to be some big challenges for a lot of businesses.”
The 4 July date was floated as long ago as 11 May in the government’s coronavirus recovery plan as the earliest possible time for a phased reopening of hospitality venues to begin, subject to the continued decline in the Covid crisis.
But Mr Janson said the industry was becoming “increasingly frustrated” at its inability to get any certainty from ministers on whether they can plan to reopen, and if so under what conditions.
“We haven’t been able to get anything from government, which is hugely frustrating because we are trying to advise a huge number of businesses who need to get staff off furlough and start recruitment, get PPE and sanitisers and make their premises safe for visitors, and the guidance on what will be required has simply not been there. Even for something as simple as serving beer, people will need two or three weeks to get it in from the breweries.
“To reopen on 4 July, really we needed clarity last week. If we get the go-ahead this week, that’s great, but it’s still going to cause a lot of difficulties for parts of the sector.”
Mr Janson warned that, as a “horizontal” industry, different parts of the tourism sector are dependent on one another. If Mr Johnson permits visitor attractions to open, they may have few customers if coach companies are unable to operate because of the two-metre social distancing rule or restaurants are not open to feed them.
“For a lot of the sector, the difference between two metres and one metre is the difference between going bankrupt and staying afloat,” he warned.
Even a green light for the start of July would present a “tall ask” for businesses to earn enough by the end of the summer to see them through to next March, he said.
“If we have to wait to the end of July, it is an almost impossible task to earn enough money in two months to survive, and we would need far greater government support to prevent mass closures and redundancies.
“Two-thirds of businesses say they have only enough revenue to last six months, so you can see the scale of the problem. That’s 2 million workers whose businesses might not survive.”
Caravan Club director general Nick Lomas said sites across the country were already carrying out safety checks, preparing pitches and taking staff off furlough in anticipation of reopening in July, and had enjoyed “some of our busiest weeks in years” for booking inquiries.
With many families nervous about leaving home and the government’s 14-day quarantine making holidays abroad impossible, the appeal of a “staycation” in an open-air setting where visitors can bring their own cooking and washing facilities with them is expected to deliver a bumper summer – so long as sites can open – he said.
But he said: “Everyone is desperate to open up and get money coming in again, but we’ve heard nothing from government yet. Even if they produce guidance now, it is getting very tight to train staff and put the final touches together by 4 July.”
And he added: “If there’s a short delay beyond that date, we can probably manage. If we have to shut down for another month or so, then the summer is gone and that will be a serious concern in terms of how the industry is supported.”
Meanwhile, tourism operators reliant on visitors from abroad fear that there is little prospect of staycationing Brits making up for the loss of £28 billion worth of earnings brought into the country each year by foreign tourists.
The average Brit spends £200 on each break in the UK, after travel and accommodation costs, compared to £700 by visitors from overseas, said Joss Croft of trade body UKInbound. And Britons holidaying at home tend to head for the countryside or coast, rather than the cities where most facilities for foreign visitors are concentrated.
“We have introduced quarantine at the same time that a lot of European countries are relaxing their restrictions,” he told The Independent. “So long as it is in place, we will just not be on tour operators’ lists.
“Even if quarantine ends or we get travel corridors, it won’t be the end of the problem because there is a lag between people booking holidays and arriving and there won’t be much of the summer left. The kind of countries which are apparently discussing air bridges, like Portugal or Greece, are not the ones which send us large numbers of visitors anyway.”
As well as financial support, companies need the government to invest in publicity campaigns to get across the idea that it is not only safe to holiday in Britain but it is the right thing to do, to keep its network of attractions and hotels and restaurants alive. Some 37 per cent of operators who responded to a UKInbound survey in April said they would struggle to survive another six months with existing government support, he said.
“It’s a desperately worrying time for my members and it’s a massive export industry for the UK,” said Mr Croft. “We are going to need long-term support to get through these difficult times.”