Tourism is vitally important to Norfolk & Suffolk’s prosperity and will have a big say in how successfully it recovers from the pandemic. In the first in a new series of interviews for Norfolk & Suffolk Unlimited, Visit East of England Executive Director Pete Waters talks about how the sector has performed since reopening and what strategies it must adopt to build a sustainable year-round economy.
What kind of summer is Norfolk and Suffolk’s tourism sector having?
“Things are looking very positive at the moment, particularly for accommodation bookings all the way through to the end of autumn, and attractions are reporting good figures as well. Of course, over the last few years many of the attractions have invested in indoor facilities anyway. The really important thing now is to get the cultural and heritage venues opened up again. It was great to see Latitude being such a great success and hopefully we won’t see too many Covid-19 cases arising from that test event. The next big push is going to be retail, high streets and the night-time economy. But in terms of visitors coming and spending their summer holiday here, I would say we are almost over-subscribed on the coast. We have some vacancies inland, and on the towns and cities, but on the coast it’s incredible. It’s also great to see so many pop-up campsites springing up to take advantage of the demand. Whether it’s enough to make up for the shortfall is another matter. One health warning on that is if the Government allows overseas tourism to restart, I certainly think there will be cancellations. However, I also think there will be enough demand to make up for that.”
Is Norfolk & Suffolk becoming ‘top of mind’ for UK holidaymakers?
“In Visit Britain’s Consumer Sentiment Survey earlier this year, of 12 regions in Britain the East of England was third from bottom. Last month, the East of England was the second most popular English destination that people wanted to travel to. From a marketing perspective, I would say that the ‘Unexplored England’ campaign has certainly had the desired effect in encouraging people to come and explore our open spaces and outdoor facilities. Last year we were getting people here for the first time and that’s happening again this year. It’s about making sure they have a good time and that they come back next year. Looking at the economy out there and the pre-bookings, the confidence among businesses is through the roof. At somewhere like Morston Hall, on the north Norfolk coast, people are phoning up and asking if they can come next week and being told there is availability in October – and they are taking it. You only have to look at how well DIY shops, garden centres and kitchen companies are doing to see that people have got money in their pockets. We need to encourage them to spend it on breaks in the East of England.”
Are the vast open spaces in our region playing to our advantage post-Covid?
“There is lots of space to enjoy your time away from the quarantine couch and if you look at somewhere like Great Yarmouth it has 15 miles of expansive beach there. And because we are not perceived as having ‘honey pots’, people feel more comfortable about coming here.”
How important is it that we invest in locations like Great Yarmouth?
“The key for Great Yarmouth is that it will always rely on the summer season, but the opportunity is there for it to develop a year-round visitor economy. By looking at its cultural and heritage assets, which it is doing now, there is a really great opportunity. Take the Hippodrome, for example. Rather than just being open for the 12 weeks of the summer, it’s promoting shows for Easter, autumn and winter. That’s the kind of ambition that Great Yarmouth has to show. If we can develop the year-round visitor economy in somewhere like Great Yarmouth, you are going to overcome that narrative of ‘seasonal, low-skilled, low-paid’. If you can give people better-paid jobs because the businesses are doing better year-round, encourage more skills training and give people long-standing careers in the visitor economy in places like Great Yarmouth, then it’s possible.”
How important is it for the sector that its growth is environmentally sustainable?
“Clearly it’s on people’s agendas and people want to take more sustainable holidays. It’s also about aligning ourselves with the general economy of East Anglia, with its renewable energy sector: we need to get apace with other parts of the economy. You just need to look at New Zealand which created its 100% Pure campaign on the back of sustainable tourism. They’ve been running that for a decade, and it’s proved phenomenally successful, creating a really strong image of the country.”
What else can we do to develop a year-round visitor economy?
“We need to promote the fact we have the best overall climate in the country here and people can have enjoyable breaks at pretty much any time of the year. We have a brilliant story to tell. Our natural capital can already be enjoyed year-round, but attractions have now invested millions in weather proofing. Besides, there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing!”