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£850m Cambridge tourism industry ‘won’t recover from Covid-19 pandemic for three years’

Cambridge’s tourism industry is expected to take a massive hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with predictions that visitor numbers may not return to normal for three years.

The large crowds thronging King’s Parade and other streets around the historic centre are not expected back for the rest of this financial year, according to tourism chiefs.

And with international travel stalled, they have set their sights on attracting more local visitors back into the city.

Emma Thornton, of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Keith Heppell
Emma Thornton, of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Keith Heppell

Emma Thornton, CEO of Visit Cambridge & Beyond, said: “We are not expecting to see any international visitors in this financial year. We are really looking at a local domestic market instead.”

Cambridge attracts 8.2million visitors annually, worth about £849million to the local economy. The visitor economy also accounts for around 22 per cent of jobs in the city.

Emma said: “A big part of (the visitor economy) has been international visitors and it’s going to take two to three years, from the indications we have had from a Visit England survey, to reach the same figures we had in 2019.”

Traditionally, Cambridge has attracted many coach parties, with large groups congregating around the most famous historic sites – only to depart again within just a few hours.

“Of those eight million visitors last year, one of our challenges was that 88 per cent of them didn’t stay more than a day,” said Emma.

“A lot of international visitors have had a bucket list of the cities they must visit when they come to England. So a lot of visitors come just for two hours, then they get on a coach to Oxford, or Stratford or York.

“It’s always been a challenge to get people to stay overnight. Our proximity to London has been a great asset but with four trains an hour it has reinforced the day-trip mentality.”

Now, she suggested, the whole face of tourism in Cambridge will change.

Emma Thornton, of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Keith Heppell
Emma Thornton, of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I think there is a real opportunity to redress this balance between inbound and outbound tourism and to rebuild domestic tourism and to change people’s behaviour,” she said.

“It could change the nature of the visitor economy in Cambridge, I hope, because there have been tremendous tensions between high visitor numbers in the summer that make it very difficult for local people to explore and enjoy where they live.

“We are a small, compact city with very narrow streets and unfortunately a lot of our international visitors are looking to just go down two streets - King’s Parade and Trinity Street. When you have a lot of people congregating outside King’s College Chapel or Trinity College or St John’s and inevitably that creates quite an unpleasant experience for them as well as local people going about their business.

“I don’t think Cambridge will have to worry about over-tourism for a long time.

“But I think one of the things we need to be very aware of is that possibly for the first time in our history we will need to be actively developing a strategy for tourism, in terms of encouraging it. Probably a more manageable, sustainable tourism will come out of it.”

Now her advice for Cambridge is to look to local people to repair the visitor economy by attracting residents from necklace villages and nearby towns into the city to enjoy its attractions.

“Visit England’s advice is people will be very cautious. We will be looking at a very local domestic picture initially and I think we are going to see intergenerational family groups start to come out. With punt tours or walking tours, it’s going to be private family groups initially before you see people who don’t know each other feeling comfortable to go on a tour.

“From Cambridge’s perspective it’s a real opportunity to re-engage with our local residents and people who live in our nearby towns and necklace villages. During this lockdown process we have reconnected with where we live in a way perhaps you haven’t done when your life is full-on. That’s something I have noticed.”

Local businesses and attractions are now busy understanding the new government guidelines on relaxing the lockdown and are working out how they could reopen with social distancing rules in place.

Emma Thornton, of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Keith Heppell
Emma Thornton, of Visit Cambridge & Beyond. Picture: Keith Heppell

“It’s all about consumer confidence. We need to prove that as a city we have thought about your experience. From your point of entry into the city we want you to feel safe,” says Ms Thornton.

Visit Cambridge, which runs guided tours around the city, has been working out how it will operate in future.

“We have been looking at how we can re-engage with local people in a safe way, with audio tours of the city that allow people to explore in an independent way. We will also look at having smaller groups - our tours will reduce from a maximum of 20 people to a maximum of 10. We expect it will initially be private groups, probably families, rather than strangers mixing together.

“There are practical elements too, such as managing narrow streets and people queuing outside shops and attractions.Organisations need to think what they need to do differently to implement safety measures. Because if visitors don’t feel safe, they will stay away.”

Whether the switch to a more local clientele will work for Cambridge’s growing portfolio of hotels is another question.

Among those in the pipeline is a five-storey aparthotel built as part of a major redevelopment of the Park Street car park by the city council, and a cheap stay easyHotel in Newmarket Road.

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