UK destinations take steps to avoid tourist pandemonium

(CNN) — Back in June 2020, as the the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown started to ease, a bout of beautiful weather culminating in the hottest day of the year saw people flocking to the country’s beaches.

Within hours, the southern coastal town of Bournemouth had declared a “major incident” as it was swamped by traffic, trash, and unmanageable numbers of people.

Despite issuing pleas for visitors to stay away, local officials reportedly issued hundreds of parking fines and collected 33 tons of waste, citing “irresponsible behavior and actions of so many.”

“It was extreme what we saw out there,” Bournemouth resident Peter Ryan, who runs a 700-strong team of volunteers who keep the area’s shores clean, tells CNN Travel. “It wasn’t just the beach which was trashed, it was the streets, the town center, the gardens, it really did leave it in a dreadful state.”

If all goes well, the end of March will see outdoor gatherings in groups of six or less permitted in England. Then, on April 12, the hope is to reopen restaurants, bars, museums, and theme parks. Private vacation rentals will be allowed to welcome back tourists traveling with their own household.

By May 17, hotels, hostels and B&Bs should be able to follow suit.

With international travel likely to remain off the table until later in 2021, for most Brits any vacation this year will involve traveling within the UK.

For the country’s tourist hotspots, that will bring relief at the prospect of business returning after months of closure, but also trepidation about how sudden influxes of visitors will be managed.

Ryan is worried the chaos of last June could repeat itself in Bournemouth, although the local council is laying on more facilities and parking monitors to try and mitigate that risk.

“Staycations are very, very popular this summer, we can’t all fly away,” he says. “So, for this period of time, we’ve got to learn to appreciate what we have actually got on our doorstep.

“That’s a brilliant thing, we should take advantage of it, enjoy it, embrace it. But at the same time, respect the environment and respect other communities.”

“We’re expecting an absolute deluge”

A major incident was declared in Bournemouth in southern England last year folowing the easing of lockdown restrictions.

A major incident was declared in Bournemouth in southern England last year folowing the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

The UK has always been a popular destination for international tourists and domestic travelers alike.

There are bustling cities like London, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh, plus miles of coastline, from the White Cliffs of Dover in the southeast of England to the sandy shores of Scotland’s islands. The UK is also home to several national parks including the picturesque peaks of the Lake District and the mountainous Cairngorms in Scotland.

These destinations usually compete with European hotspots such as Spain and Portugal for UK travelers, but in 2020 as the country’s own restrictions placed most overseas trips off-limits, staycation interest rose.

Self catering accomodation overlooking the sea in Tenby, Pembrokeshire in Wales.

Self catering accomodation overlooking the sea in Tenby, Pembrokeshire in Wales.

Huw Fairclough/Getty Images

Jane Reese-Baynes, chair of Visit Pembrokeshire, a region of southwest Wales known for its craggy coastline and green valleys, says she was surprised by the number of visitors who flocked there last year.

“I think there was a genuine concern that nobody would want to come on holiday,” she says. “So, when everybody came on holiday, it was kind of a case of: ‘Right, we have to deal with the numbers now, we didn’t expect this.'”

For Visit Pembrokeshire, the goal for 2021 is to highlight lesser known spots, and stress that visitors should pre-plan and pre-book accommodation or campsites.

Wales, like Scotland and Northern Ireland, has yet to detail its roadmap out of lockdown, but has suggested self-catered accommodation could reopen around the Easter break in late March to early April.

And while some visitors will book as soon as they get the green-light, Reese-Baynes is also anticipating many last-minute bookings and camping trips plans, leading to large numbers of visitors.

“We’re all expecting an absolute deluge,” she says.

To prepare, the region is putting more feet on the ground. This summer, rangers will patrol Pembrokeshire’s coastal paths and parks, connecting with local visitors, checking all is well and letting people know which spots might be quieter.

Getting local businesses on-message is also key, says Reese-Baynes.

“There was a real push last year, once we realized how busy it was, to try and communicate out to the trade: ‘Please can you point your guests in a different direction?'”

Reese-Baynes also manages a Pembrokeshire hotel: Elms Grove Country House. Last year, her team started advising visitors on lesser-known spots and plan to do that again this summer. It’ll all also continue at reduced capacity, even if not required, and maintain social distancing enforcements.

“Even though restrictions will be lifted, I still think that there will be some level of concern there,” says Reese-Baynes.

Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park, the UK’s largest, is also working to deploy more rangers after a flood of visitors in summer 2020 stretched services to the limit.

The park reported an increase in litter, vandalism, antisocial behavior and human waste. Full parking lots led to damaged woodland. There was also a series of fires, likely the result of campfires, which are discouraged in most areas of the park.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority made the decision to employ seasonal rangers for the first time and plans to reinstate this service for 2021 to ensure visitors treat the park with respect and locations didn’t become overcrowded.

“We want people to enjoy coming to the national park, but we want to make sure that the next person that comes and enjoys the national park as well,” Cairngorms National Park Authority CEO Grant Moir tells CNN Travel.

Some of the most successful solutions were based around traffic management, he explains.

At Loch Muick, popular with hikers and wild swimmers, access was limited by barriers operating a one in, one out system. Another spot, Linn of Dee, gained an overflow parking lot. Visitors were directed elsewhere when it filled.

“The Cairngorms is 4,500 square kilometers, there are plenty of places for people to go and walk, cycle, whatever it might be they want to do, sit in a deck chair and look at the trees, whatever it might be,” says Moir.

As well as infrastructure investments, social media also plays a part in redistributing people around the park, he adds. Promoting lesser known spots on Instagram and Facebook can help spread footfall.

Campers in Buttermere Lake in England's Lake District in August 2020.

Campers in Buttermere Lake in England’s Lake District in August 2020.

OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

In summer 2020, a rush on self-catered accommodation, limits on numbers in hotels and an emphasis on the relative safety of being outside during the pandemic led to a growing interest in camping.

Wild camping is allowed in Scotland, but it’s forbidden in most parts of England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Last year, Forestry England’s Stuart Burgess told CNN that a spate of illegal camping had caused damage to the country’s forests. This year, the group are trying to be prepared.

“We are taking what we have learned from last year to support people this year,” Burgess says. “We expect a very busy spring and summer.”

Preparation includes making sure woodland trails, public bathrooms and car parks are ready for high numbers. Burgess says the key is giving people information and helping them “make good choices.”

“Many people want to do the right thing and it might be something simple as remembering to bring a separate bag to take your litter away.”

For Burgess, the rise in interest in camping and exploring England’s forests is ultimately cheering, despite the problems that can come with high numbers.

“It has reminded experienced visitors, and the many new ones we have seen, just how important the nation’s forests and other green spaces are for our health and wellbeing,” he says. “Simply being outside and connecting with nature has brought relief to many.”

A new front for overtourism

The White Cliffs of Dover in Kent, southeastern England -- one of the UK's most famous landmarks.

The White Cliffs of Dover in Kent, southeastern England — one of the UK’s most famous landmarks.

BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Many of the solutions implemented in the UK echo those employed by cities or countries that were bywords for overtourism in a pre-pandemic world.

In 2018 and 2019, Venice, Iceland and Barcelona were focusing on crowd control, dispersing people away from hotspots, promoting responsible travel and encouraging expenditure in the local economy.

For any destination, dealing with a sudden influx of visitors is a careful balance between continuing to promote the place and ensuring visitors treat it with respect and avoid negatively impacting local residents.

In the UK, that equation has been made trickier by the country’s recent Brexit from the EU, a move that could potentially discourage visitors from Europe. Any negative publicity could do further harm.

In the southeastern county of Kent, tourism officials are keen to focus on the positives such as Covid-safe initiatives in restaurants of country houses, but they’re also conscious of the impact of of Brexit-induced traffic gridlock en route to its major port of Dover and the impact of the so-called Kent variant, a highly infectious coronavirus mutation.

“We as a destination have got to work super hard,” says Deirdre Wells, CEO of local tourism body Visit Kent.

Wells also acknowledges the UK’s domestic tourism market is “competitive,” but believes her region’s acres of vineyards, historic castles and famous coastline are enough to negate long-term negative impact and deliver a summer boom.

“We’re really looking to have a sort of major reboot moment in June to try and drive some of that footfall back which our businesses have missed so much,” she says.

Destinations across the UK are also hoping this influx of domestic visitors won’t be a flash in the pan, and that travelers who weren’t previously aware of the delights on their doorstep will continue to enjoy UK destinations, even once they can also travel further afield.

Plus, investing in tourism infrastructure should pay off in the long term when international travelers return to the UK.

For Moir, the buzz around the Cairngorms, and local destinations more generally, is ultimately positive.

He’s excited to see the region come to life again this summer and see people across the UK appreciate its beauty.

“It’s sometimes quite easy to focus on the negative story of somebody cutting down a tree or lighting a fire in the wrong place. But what you don’t see is the hundreds or the thousands of people who are doing the right thing, and who are there to enjoy themselves.”

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