Parts of the UK are preparing for a bumper summer as overseas holidays look increasingly unlikely until Covid-19 vaccination rates improve around the world.
Experts say Britain’s seaside towns and villages are experiencing one of the best years on record amid “huge pent-up demand for people to get out” after nearly four months of lockdown.
While some areas will benefit from a surge in domestic tourism, it is predicted to be a mixed bag of success for other parts of the country, with big cities such as London deprived of overseas tourists.
Holidays in England are expected to take place after April 12 at the earliest under the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.
UK ministers have warned overseas travel could remain off limits this summer because of the third wave under way in Europe, fuelling demand for "staycations".
International travel was expected to reopen on May 17 at the earliest but now people won't be able to take foreign holidays until June under new Covid-19 regulations expected to come into force next week.
The proposed bill, which sets out the UK's roadmap out of lockdown, imposes a maximum £5,000 ($6,932) fine on anyone leaving the country without a valid excuse.
Kurt Janson, director of the UK Tourism Alliance, said bookings in traditional British hot spots were up by an estimated 20 per cent from levels normally seen in pre-pandemic times, largely due to the uncertainty surrounding international trips.
"It's going to work really well for some businesses and some areas - for some, it's going to be the best year they've ever had for forward bookings," he told The National.
“There is a huge pent-up demand for people to get out. Some seaside areas will be at the point of having to control tourism numbers, with concerns about wild camping and that type of thing.”
But he said tourism in the UK’s major cities was looking “quite shaky” as tourists preferred to visit outdoor attractions.
“If you’re a business in the city, a hotel for example, things are not looking great,” Mr Janson said.
“All the attractions you have in the city tend to be indoors - museums, galleries and shows - and they are going to be some of the last things to reopen. So it’s going to be very difficult for the cities.”
Clive Black, an analyst at Shore Capital, said the tourism sector’s hopes for summer were being “dramatically reassessed” as a third wave of coronavirus sweeps Europe.
Ministers are understood to be considering a traffic light system that could allow British tourists quarantine-free travel to countries with low rates of coronavirus.
But it could be a traffic light system with no European countries on the green list, given the low inoculation rates in comparison with the UK.
Scientists have warned that coronavirus variants entering Britain remained the biggest risk of restarting international tourism.
The UK has administered nearly 44 vaccine doses per 100 people, compared with the European Union’s 13 doses, according to Our World in Data statistics.
Mr Black said the “smoke signals” from the government suggested that international tourism would still be illegal in the summer.
"[UK] Coastal destinations will do exceptionally well, it's hard to get a booking in a lot of places. But London attracts people from all over the world - particularly Middle Eastern people - and if a ban is still in place that is going to affect everything," he told The National.
“Everything from Wimbledon through to the social events is going to be structurally challenged.”
Robert Franks, co-founder of luxury trainer retailer Kick Game, said sales had been hit hard by the lack of international tourists in London.
“We are really reliant on people from the Middle East and China in the summer – that trade can make or break our year,” he told PA news agency.
“Online has been great and kept us moving forward over the past year but we really want to see those customers back this summer.”
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive at Advantage Travel Partnership, said the warnings on international travel were “completely reckless, completely irresponsible”.
“Huge amounts can happen in two months when in a pandemic,” she said.
“We know what timescales we are working to, we know the milestones. Politicians should be working towards those and not making reckless comments that destroy businesses and create huge emotional tensions for consumers.”
UK minister Helen Whately said on Monday it was still too early for people in Britain to be considering an overseas holiday.
“My advice would be to anybody right now, it's just to hold off on booking international travel,” she said.
“The prime minister launched a taskforce looking specifically at international travel. That will be reporting back shortly. It just feels premature to be booking international holidays at the moment.”
Prof Andrew Hayward from University College London, a scientific adviser to the UK government, was also pessimistic about the prospect of overseas holidays.
"I suspect what we may end up with is some sort of traffic light system with some countries that are no-go areas, for example likely to be South Africa and South America; other areas where there will be more severe restrictions - there will be some combination of vaccine certificates, testing and maybe quarantine - and maybe there will be some low-risk countries that you can go to,” he said.
He said scientists were particularly worried about the prevalence of the South African variant in Europe.
“If that starts to become dominant in the UK then that would be a very bad thing,” he said.
“Increasing travel will increase the spread of these variants. That is the main threat in this whole strategy.”
What's on offer? Seaside stay v city break
People hoping to get away for summer could be hard-pressed to find a bargain in England’s beauty spots.
Kurt Janson, director of the UK Tourism Alliance, said bookings in seaside areas were up an estimated 20 percentage points from usual levels.
Areas most in demand included Cornwall in south-west England, Wales and Scotland.
A booking.com search conducted by The National for two adults between the peak season dates of August 16 and August 21 showed few options available for Cornwall.
At the top end of the market, a five-night stay at Carbis Bay and Spa Hotel in St Ives cost £7,000 ($9,685).
Mid-range options included the Pentire Hotel (£800), Camelot Castle Hotel (£800) and The Llawnroc Hotel (£900).
The Trethorne Hotel & Golf Club in Launceston, a small inland town in Cornwall, was among the cheapest options at £495 for five nights.
A search on Airbnb for the same dates generated only16 results for the Cornwall area, ranging from £40 to £180 per night.
Tony Townsend, marketing manager at Carbis Bay Holidays, which offers self-catering accommodation, said demand surged after the government introduced a new exit permit for international travel.
"It's more of an incentive to stay in the UK. If you choose a staycation, not only are you supporting the UK economy but giving yourself a break from any hassle of filling in forms or complying with the international travel restrictions," he told The National.
“Apart from four of our one-bedroom properties, we are sold out from May 23 to September 18.”
In contrast, accommodation in London was widely available, with many hotels offering discounted rates.
Park Plaza at Westminster Bridge, which overlooks the Houses of Parliament, was offering the five-night stay in mid-August for £864, discounted from £1,081.
Bargains were available in areas not typically popular with summer tourists.
Birmingham’s Hilton Hotel, for example, was charging £436 for the same dates.