Bumper Bank Holidays put tourism businesses back on course
- Credit: Nick Butcher
The sun shone on the region's tourism sector this weekend, which was able to end a successful May with a bang. Bethany Whymark assesses the feelings of the sector after its Bank Holiday boost.
Two strong May Bank Holiday weekends have helped to propel tourism and leisure businesses in East Anglia into the summer season following a stilted start to the year.
Despite thunderstorms in the west of the country, the East was bathed in sunshine for the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, with temperatures soaring almost as high as the previous three-day weekend.
With Royal wedding fever still hanging in the air, the streams of people flooding to the region's beaches, parks and waterways showed an eagerness to make the most of the weekend.
Chris Scargill, tourism, hospitality and leisure partner at Larking Gowen, said May had got the season off to a 'good start' – and provided a welcome boost for firms facing higher operating costs this year.
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'Clearly the fantastic weather from the first Bank Holiday has created a feel-good factor and confidence in holidaying in the local area,' he said.
'The sector needs this type of boost, and the fact that this recent Bank Holiday was mostly dry helped too, and again brought out the visitors.'
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He added: 'Decision making is being left to the last minute, making it difficult for businesses to plan, and while businesses are pleased to see visitors to their area, getting them to stay and spend is vital.'
Steve Elsom, East of England regional director at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, said the region's coastal locations in particular were becoming more popular with UK holidaymakers.
Office for National Statistics figures show international travel by UK residents has dropped by 3%, driven in part by the weaker pound which has made overseas travel more expensive.
Mr Elsom said: 'As we approach summer, now is the ideal time for seaside businesses to consider investing in their operations.
'The anticipated influx of visitors has the potential to create a welcome boom for business and drive demand for goods and services in the region, particularly in the hospitality, leisure and heritage sectors.'
Norfolk Country Cottages, which is part of the Original Cottages group with Suffolk Secrets, saw bookings increase by 6% year-on-year for last weekend following a 14% year-on-year rise for the early May Bank Holiday.
This was driven by significant increases in bookings for short breaks, up 51% for the early Bank Holiday and 42% for the late Bank Holiday.
Tom Ellis, director of Norfolk Country Cottages, believed the increases were down to a 'general trend' for customers booking later, as well as the good weather.
'It's the peak summer weeks that are getting filled up quickly, as you would expect, but even November bookings, for example, are up on this time last year,' he said.
Amanda Mason, marketing director at Herbert Woods in Potter Heigham, hailed another 'great weekend' for the boat hire firm following bumper bookings for the early May Bank Holiday.
She said: 'We had 117 holiday cruisers going out over the weekend, which is 9% up on last year. Picnic boats were fully booked and we extended day hire to 7pm to take advantage of the good weather.'
Richardson's Boating Holidays saw year-on-year bookings increase by 70% for the early Bank Holiday. For the late Bank Holiday, boat bookings were up 8% while bookings for its beach holiday park at Hemsby were more than 50% higher than last year.
At Hoseasons in Lowestoft Bank Holiday bookings for its lodges and park stays were up 24% on last year, while its specialist accommodation – with additional facilities like hot tubs – saw a bookings increase of 23%.
Managing director Simon Altham said: 'The Bank Holiday weekend has been an excellent period for the company and for businesses across Norfolk and Suffolk.'
The appeal of attractions
At Pensthorpe Natural Park near Fakenham, poor weather at the start of the year was a frustrating setback.
Snow and rain led to persistent flooding on the reserve, while like many other businesses it was hit by the Easter weekend downpours.
But the sun has finally come out this month. Visitor numbers over the May Bank Holiday weekends have increased by 27% on last year – up 38% for the first and up 22% for the second.
Meanwhile secondary spend through its shop and cafe was up 34% across the two weekends.
Operations director Mark Noble said: 'Our newly launched bird hide, new stamp trail and 30th anniversary special events have all been very well received by visitors and there seems to be a growing anticipation for the forthcoming opening of our new Wetland Discovery Area in July, when visitors will once again be able to see our much-loved flamingo flock.'
Martin Dupee, chairman of Norfolk and Suffolk Tourist Attractions (NSTA) and operations director at Banham Zoo and Africa Alive, said the two attractions had seen their best Bank Holiday weekend for five years, with numbers significantly up on last year.
The weekend marks a strong start to the summer half term for many of the region's schools, which Mr Dupee said was an important period for the attractions.
'The sun is shining and the forecast is not bad so I am extremely positive for the week continuing to be good,' he said.
'May has seen good Bank Holidays – especially after the relatively poor Easter we are making up some ground, which is well needed.'
Benjie Cabbell Manners, of Amazona Zoo, also said visitor numbers were up on 2017. 'The great weather meant people flocked to Cromer and visited Amazona,' he said.
A spokesman for Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden in South Walsham said that, aside from the weather, the May Bank Holidays had fallen at good spring flower times, with the first catching the bluebell season and the second seeing the rhododendrons in bloom.
A word of caution
While the Bank Holiday provided clear skies, tourism experts have warned there could be clouds on the horizon.
Chris Scargill of Larking Gowen said he was watching for impacts caused by rising fuel prices.
This weekend unleaded petrol reached an average price of 128p per litre, the highest level in three and a half years, while diesel reached 131p a litre. It has been attributed to rising crude oil prices, which hit $80 a barrel this month for the first time since November 2014.
A poll of 17,000 AA members found the rising prices were causing 15% of people to drive less, and 9% to cut costs elsewhere.
Mr Scargill said: 'Getting into our region and getting around in it mostly requires your own transport, and with the price of fuel increasing, it may encourage some of us to stay and enjoy our local area, rather than travel further afield.
'But it may also impact affordability for those coming to visit us.'