Sunday, 30 January 2011

Yorkshire: Is the staycation here to stay?

Depending on which company you ask, Britons are either choosing to remain at home for their holidays or continuing to flock to foreign shores. Who do you believe?

This year the Office for National Statistics confirmed that visits abroad dropped by 15 per cent – the biggest fall since the dash for European sun, sea and sand began back in the 1970s.

Meanwhile the domestic tourism industry, during the same period, saw a rise of half a million to 11.4m trips.

But even these statistics don't offer a complete picture.

Although many people are now choosing to stay in Blighty, 58.6m trips were taken outside the country – that's almost equivalent to every man, woman and child in Britain and still five times the number of holidays taken at home.

The fall in the number of foreign journeys also takes into account business trips – they fell by a quarter – and so slightly skew the overall picture, since the recession inevitably saw more businesses tighten their belts by clamping down on travel costs.

Michael Croft is an independent expert based in Leeds and is part of an impartial team of travel agents, Travel Counsellors, which arranges holidays without being tied to specific locations, companies and products.

He said: "The statistics don't really show a true picture in my experience. At the height of the recession things were bad and people were cutting costs, but as of the middle of 2009 we saw more and more people starting to book holidays. We are actually 18 per cent up on bookings over the last 12 months.

"I think a lot of people were thinking 'to hell with it' and rather than waiting to see if things got better or worse went ahead and booked anyway. A lot of families view a trip away as an important thing, perhaps more so than getting a new car or a new kitchen, which they can always put off."

And when it comes to grabbing some winter sun we Britons still love to jet away from the snow and ice. Egypt, once viewed as a more exotic, once-in-a-lifetime option, is now consistently one of Thomas Cook's top five foreign destinations largely on the back of its popularity during the winter.

The popularity of Spain is also bolstered by the fact that we flock to The Canaries at this time of year because the weather always remains good.

Interestingly Thomas Cook, Britain's biggest travel agent, better known for more conventional family holidays in Europe, have also seen a growth in the number of visitors choosing alternative spots such as Tunisia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

Foreign travel companies are currently fighting back by making trips more alluring and convenient.

More and more of the big names are using smaller airports, for example, meaning the days when you were forced to trek to Manchester, London or Birmingham or no longer a given. Now companies like Thomas Cook use Southampton, Norwich, Exeter, not to mention Doncaster, Humberside and, yes, Leeds/Bradford.

Fear of the staycation has also seen many travel companies offering deals to entice customers back – some of them so attractive the threat of strikes, volcanoes and snow aren't enough to deter potential travellers.

"There have been all kinds of deals floating around," says Michael. "There was one which included a business class flight to Australia for £2,000 when it should have been closer to £3,500. Or some places which would normally only do bed and breakfast have started doing full board for the same price.

"And there has been a bit of a fight on to get tourists back to Europe. More popular destinations like Turkey and Egypt started to put their prices up because they got the numbers, then resorts in countries like Spain and Portugal cut theirs in order to keep them."

But the key question is one of the nature of the shift. Are people shelving any kind of holiday as they wait for a sunnier financial climate, or are people switching from travelling abroad to holidaying at home?

"I think the idea of staycation has been over emphasised," insists Michael. "I think you will see a return to foreign travel soon because, quite simply, we like to get away from things in this country, take a real break.

"People want sun and, although we've had a couple of reasonable summers here, they want to know there'll be guaranteed sun and constantly hot temperatures and that's something a staycation just can't provide consistently.

"But the market is changing because of other influences. We've seen more and more people going to the US and other nations tied to the dollar because the exchange rate is more favourable again.

"And perhaps most intriguing is the fact that the cruise providers are expanding with more and more family-friendly offers appearing which means they don't have to worry about weather conditions of volcanic ash clouds – they don't even need to worry about having too much luggage for the plane."

But recently domestic tourism figures have indicated the staycation is emerging, but will it last?

The last round of figures showed that total visitor numbers to this region were up 22 per cent. Welcome to Yorkshire, the body charged with boosting the local profile, proudly reports 107 million annual visits.

Boss Gary Verity says this can be partly attributed to recession-induced 'staycations' and two reasonably good summers, but this increase was still the highest seen in any UK region.

He added: "Most people thought everyone would tighten their belts in 2009 and not go abroad, then do the complete opposite when recovery came. Except that recovery hasn't quite come yet.

"And I think the trick now is to keep ensuring that all those people who come here want to come back, regardless of what the state of the economy is. It's possible.

"We know from our research. We survey 10,000 visitors to Yorkshire every year and 90 per cent of them already say they would want to make another trip to the county. We need to build on that further."

Peter Dodd, Welcome to Yorkshire's sales and marketing director said: "The staycation is an uncertain concept at the moment – if you asked your average man on the street or your mother what a staycation was they may not know what you're talking about!

"And it doesn't just explain the increase in visitors to Yorkshire because our visitors figures are higher than everyone else's. But it has been growing for the last two years and even though there's going to be another tough year ahead we're optimistic that we'll be able to do even better in 2011."

If the staycation does exist, then Yorkshire is a potential stalwart. Interestingly, Park Holidays, a nationwide carvan holiday provider, this year conducted a survey.

The finding showed that, of all the cities in the country, the biggest fans of holidays at home came from just six places: Hull, Leeds, Wakefield, York, Doncaster and Sheffield. They also reported a 37 per cent rise in people opting for staycations.

But how long-term or reliable this proves to be remains uncertain.
Earlier this year Pontin's – long-time providers of holidays at home – said they were taking increased bookings of around 22 per cent, but just eight months later the company was forced to call in the administrators.

"I think you will see a return to foreign travel soon because, quite simply, we like to get away from things in this country"

Between volcanic ash clouds, arctic weather, cabin crew strikes and the recession, foreign trips have taken a battering recently – but does that necessarily mean Britain, particularly Yorkshire, will continue to reap the rewards of holidaying at home? Rod McPhee reports

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