Is the staycation here for the long haul?
Sam WilliamsThe weak pound, price-conscious families and hot weather helped deliver a bumper year for Norfolk's tourism firms in 2009. But is the staycation trend here for the long haul - or just a welcome break?Sam Williams
The weak pound, price-conscious families and hot weather helped deliver a bumper year for Norfolk's tourism firms in 2009. But is the 'staycation' trend here for the long haul - or just a welcome break? SAM WILLIAMS reports.
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Last year was a bumper year for the region's tourism firms, with the recession, the weak pound and hot weather drawing in flocks of holidaymakers.
And while this summer's weather prospects remain uncertain, many in the industry are confident of repeat performance - and believe 'staycations' are here to stay.
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While the recession may have officially ended, recovery has been slow, and with higher unemployment and families looking for a bargain, many will want to forgo the cost of a trip abroad.
The weakness of the pound has also made European holidays too expensive for some, and there is no sign of the situation changing any time soon.
But it is the quality of what the region has to offer which will tempt holidaymakers back, according to Greg Munford, group general manager at Stalham-based holiday company Richardson's.
The business, which operates boat hire on the Broads and holiday parks, has invested more than �500,000 in 20 new cruisers which will be in use this summer after strong bookings both this year and last.
The investment will bring the size of the fleet to 305.
Mr Munford said: 'We don't believe last year was a one-hit wonder. We think the market has changed after people's experiences of a holiday at home.
'People have had their eyes opened. I personally believe the trend for holidaying at home is going to last indefinitely, or at least for the next three years.'
He added: 'If someone has enjoyed their holiday in the UK why would they want to stand in queues at the airport, or suffer the inconvenience of travelling abroad?'
Mr Munford said this year was already shaping up to be a particularly strong one, with every boat available over the school Easter holidays booked up.
The firm's family and over-50s holiday parks were also performing well, with summer bookings in line with last year - itself a very busy one.
He added: 'Our future bookings are still 30pc up on last year. With the increase in the fleet we are looking for a very good year, to build on what was a very good year last year.'
Mr Munford's views were echoed by Roger Finney, marketing manager at the Vauxhall Holiday Park in Great Yarmouth.
The business, which has 400 holiday homes and more than 200 camping and caravan pitches, saw a 7pc increase in bookings in 2009 and this year that is set to rise by a further 10pc.
Mr Finney said: 'The trend over the past couple of years is people are looking for a value for money offer and I don't think that will change.
'If offers are there to tie people in a bit earlier, they have been taken up.'
He added: 'The overseas market and Europe have not been cost-effective for people.
'People have seen the quality and facilities, particularly for children, and those parks who have invested are now well placed to benefit from that.
'There are of course challenges. We are not just competing with other accommodation in Yarmouth or Norfolk but also other parts of the UK so we must continue to be on top of our game.
'Another challenge is the pound has strengthened against the euro by more than 10pc year-on-year.
'It may well rise further once the uncertainty of the general election is over and a new government is seen to be taking steps to reduce public debt.
'Many countries in the eurozone, particularly Spain, have also been marketing themselves aggressively and reducing prices to make them more competitive.
'But overall I am convinced the UK tourism industry is in for another highly successful year.'
Despite optimism in the sector, there are a number of wildcard factors which may impact on tourism, of which perhaps the biggest is the weather.
Many businesses suffered a slump in trade after record rainfall in the summer of 2007, particularly outdoor and seaside attractions and day boat hire, and the traditional Easter boom in visitor numbers fizzled out in 2008 as the region was hit by snow.
David McMaster, who runs Norwich City Sightseeing bus tours, said the Easter holidays had got off to a 'slow start' because of poor weather, but said demand had picked up as the weather improved.
He said: 'We are very weather dependent in an open-top bus. If it's raining we don't get customers.'
He said last year had seen a 20pc increase in demand, which he said he hoped to improve on this year, and said the weak pound was helping attract European visitors, with Dutch and French customers helping buoy trade recently.
But he said there were a 'combination of factors' encouraging people tending to holiday at home.
Norfolk hoteliers have reported strong bookings, with disruption to flights caused by volcanic ash contributing to demand from holidaymakers who have had to make alternative plans after their trips were cancelled.
Bill Heath, managing director of the Arlington Hotel Group, which runs hotels in Newmarket, Swaffham, Norwich, North Walsham and Wroxham, said bookings had risen steeply at the weekend, particularly at Wroxham.
He said: 'This weekend just gone, Hotel Wroxham was manic because of people being unable to fly because of the volcanic ash.
'There was a huge stag party which was due to go abroad for the weekend, but couldn't so they ended up in boats on the Broads and staying at Hotel Wroxham. It has been a record April for us in Wroxham.'
However, while all the other hotels had seen strong trade, Mr Heath said his Norwich premises, The George Hotel, had not, which he blamed on an oversupply of rooms in the city.
'There certainly seem to be a lot more forward bookings generally,' he said. 'But in Norwich there are too many hotel bedrooms.'
Norwich's opportunity to cash in on UK travel
The Norwich area is well placed to benefit from growth in British tourism, according to Clare Millar, head of marketing at tourism body Visit Norwich.
Ms Millar said Norwich was gaining 'further momentum' as a leading UK destination, with the bid championed by Norwich City Council for City of Culture status.
She said: 'It may be a challenging economic climate but one of the positive aspects for businesses in our sector is the terrific opportunities for domestic tourism right now.
'Travel industry experts claim British tourism is set for another bumper year as the rise of the 'staycation' continues.
'The continuing strength of the euro and a growing feeling of disillusion with air travel are at the root of this sustained appeal with holidaying at home.
'Last year, the Norwich area promoted itself to a lost generation of holidaymakers and we have a real opportunity this year to once again encourage people to holiday at home and to enjoy re-discovering what's on their doorstep.
'So there is every reason to be optimistic about visitor related business prospects looking forward and Visit Norwich is well placed to help tourism businesses make the most of those opportunities.'
Are we set for a barbeque summer?
While long-range weather forecasting is not an exact science, early signals do not promise a summer scorcher this year.
The four-month forecast for East Anglia by Netweather suggests temperatures will remain slightly below average in April, May, June and July.
And while April and June may be drier than average, May and July are set for significantly higher rainfall than the norm for the time of year.
The forecaster said high pressure was likely to lead to a drier April, but low pressure was expected to affect May, bringing potential for some very wet weather.
While Netweather said confidence in the accuracy of predictions for June and July was 'fairly low', but said indications suggested a dry June and wet July, with temperatures likely to be close to average for the time of year.
Ash cloud offers boost to Norfolk tourism
Tourist attractions in East Anglia are set to benefit from the clouds of volcanic ash as families choose to holiday at home instead of risking foreign travel.
The dramatic disruption to air travel has forced thousands of people to put their holiday plans on ice, and the longer flights are grounded the more attractive a 'staycation' may become.
At least that is the hope for the region's healthy tourism industry, which hopes to see a bumper season this summer as holidaymakers choose the less stressful option of staying in the UK.
Michael Timewell, Norfolk Tourism chairman and a director of Kelling Heath in north Norfolk, said: 'Maybe people will scratch their heads and ask if air travel is really worth doing.
'Last year Norfolk enjoyed excellent weather and people chose to stay at home. Here in the county we have a fantastic environment, accommodation and attractions which people can enjoy.
'The recent troubles with air travel are more reason to stay in the UK.'