The coronavirus has many victims in the travel and tourism industry. However, one upside may be in the UK, where holiday-hungry Britons will change their international travel plans for domestic ones.
The rise of the staycation is a perennial story. In the past five years, heatwaves, Brexit, the weak pound, overseas terrorist attacks and, more recently, the climate crisis have all boosted UK holiday bookings. This year, coronavirus looks set to do the same as British travellers swap holidays abroad for a break closer to home.
Figures released on 4 March by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show that January saw the lowest monthly increase in global airline passengers since 2010, when the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud led to massive airspace closures and flight cancellations. Demand for flights increased by just 2.4% compared with January 2019, where year-on-year growth had been 4.6%.
“January was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the traffic impacts we are seeing owing to the Covid-19 outbreak, given that major travel restrictions in China did not begin until 23 January. Nevertheless, it was still enough to cause our slowest traffic growth in nearly a decade,” said IATA chief executive Alexandre de Juniac.
Global travel companies are already feeling the negative impact of coronavirus: Booking Holdings (which owns booking.com, priceline.com, kayak.com, cheapflights and momondo.com, among others), is predicting a 15% drop in total bookings in 2020. But UK tourism businesses are reporting a rise of up to 40% in traffic to their websites.
“For the period 1 January to 24 February 2020, we are, on average, 40% up on web visitors compared with the same period in the previous year,” said Steve Jarvis, owner of Independent Cottages. “Initial analysis of the most recent enquiries is that they appear to all be domestic – overseas enquiries have reduced significantly.”
UK campsites are seeing extra bookings, too. Listings site Campsites.co.uk. says year-on-year searches were up 18% in February, and nearly 30% so far in March.
“Lots of the most popular holiday parks and glamping sites already have less than 20% availability for peak summer, so families that have a clear idea of where they want to go should book now rather than risk missing out,” said founder Martin Smith. “In our experience, many sites wouldn’t normally have sold quite so much summer availability this early in the year, and certainly the traffic figures tie in to that.”
Nick Wyatt of data and analytics company GlobalData agreed: “Staycations are likely to make travellers feel more comfortable as they are familiar with the location, they can potentially avoid flying, and they know the health service and health structure.”
Glamping site Canopy and Stars says bookings for 2020 stays are up 33% on 2019, a continuation of a trend seen for several years now, and a reflection of the rise in popularity of holidays in natural settings. “Over the past few days in particular we have seen a really strong performance in terms of bookings,” said spokeswoman Emily Enright.
Accommodation site Host Unusual has also seen a rise in searches for more isolated and off-grid properties (up 45% and 38% respectively), as well as searches by people looking for properties close to where they live.
“It appears that staycations are evolving, with a tendency towards more remote settings and standalone accommodation,” said Host Unusual director Alex Wilson. “The key words here are isolation and exclusivity, away from crowds.”
Malcom Bell of Visit Cornwall said the next two weeks would be critical for Easter bookings. “It will be interesting to see how the British react. [They may view] coming down and walking on a Cornish beach as safer than going shopping in a town centre.” He said the tourist board was not promoting the idea of rural destinations being safer to visit but “would consider that sort of messaging later” if the virus began to take an economic toll on tourism businesses in the region.
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Photo credit: Sidmouth, Devon, a popular holiday spot in the UK. Philip Goddard / Flickr