The fresh round of travel restrictions and lockdowns in the UK is set to stretch the summer staycation boom well into 2021, as consumers anxious about travelling abroad plan domestic breaks to have something to look forward to in the grim months ahead.
From canal boat holidays in obscure rural outposts to cosy self-catering cottages and glamping, Britons are organising local breaks in favour of traditional family holidays abroad, operators say.
Instead of the usual January surge in foreign holiday bookings triggered by Boxing Day deals, firms are steeling themselves for another challenging few months, with families appearing to be holding off until the summer.
“The appetite for the UK will be immeasurable,” said Alistair Handyside, chair of the Professional Association of Self-Caterers. “Demand could be higher than it’s ever been before.”
This isn’t just wild optimism from UK operators; some popular cottages and campsites are already booked solid for the next year. After a record year for glamping specialist Canopy & Stars in 2020, for example, forward bookings are up 200% year on year with shoulder seasons – the period between high and low seasons – proving as popular as the summer months and searches for Northumberland – the least densely populated region in England – up fourfold.
With demand outstripping supply the pop-up glampsites that sprouted across the country in summer 2020 will return in 2021, especially now that the government has doubled the amount of time temporary structures can be placed on the land without planning permission.
Canal boats – ideal for small groups in “bubbles” – were fully booked over the summer and early autumn and operators predict ongoing interest amid restrictions.
Nigel Stevens, director of Drifters Waterways Holidays – whose nine companies make up just over half the entire UK boating market, said: “We have already seen an increase in bookings for our 2021 holidays, and we anticipate that canal boat holiday sales will continue to be up from January when many people make their holiday plans. Demand for staycations is likely to be strong again next year, so we predict there may well be a rush on self-catering ‘bubble’ holidays like ours.”
Jo McGowan, her husband Carl Homer and their 13-year-old daughter Alice, who live in Cambridge, have decided to holiday close to home this year. They had booked to go to Japan in the Easter holidays for a one-off holiday of a lifetime but have just postponed the trip for the second time. “The plan was to visit Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto for 10 days,” said McGowan. “We were originally booked for Easter 2020 but it got to March and it was clear that travel would not be possible so we postponed it to Easter next year. We’ve now made the decision to postpone to Easter 2022.”
The family are not too despondent about a UK holiday, however. “Last summer we had two long weekends in different parts of the UK and really enjoyed the change of scenery at the time. And when the weather was good we got out the paddling pool at home. Sometimes it’s more about the break than the location.”
Tour operators, from well-established adventure specialists such as Intrepid and Wild Frontiers to start-ups that launched mid-pandemic, are also capitalising on the desire for outdoor adventure in the UK.
After launching in July, Natural Britain plans to have around 100 UK trips on sale for 2021, appealing not just to the adventurous but also to the growing number of “carbon conscious” travellers. Tours vary from a pack-pony trek in Cumbria and dog-sledding in Wales to tamer options such as exploring Edinburgh or the Cotswolds by bike, aimed at those who like active days to end in the comfort of a luxury hotel or glampsite.
Acknowledging that 2020 has been a brutal year for the many thousands who lost their jobs, chief executive of Homegrown Hotels, Robin Hutson, believes there’s also a sizeable number of people keen to treat themselves in 2021. “Demand is there, it’s the restrictions that are holding people back,” he said, adding that bookings for Homegrown, which operates seven Pig hotels and the Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, are already strong for next year.
Shakila Ahmed, spokesperson for the Travelodge chain, said: “Britons are currently booking their 2021 staycation cautiously. We are seeing bursts of bookings for the calendar next year and we anticipate demand will increase once the restrictions start to ease. A last-minute minication has been very popular this year and we expect this trend to continue in 2021.”
Alasdair Elwick, general manager of the Michelin-starred The Forest Side in Grasmere, said the hotel’s occupancy was “significantly up” across all months until December next year, in what he suggested could be “a very strong year”.
“However, the uncertainty of a future lockdown isn’t helping at all and our booking system is like a game of musical chairs – lots of people are cancelling and lots are booking.”
A spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents, was cautiously optimistic about 2021, saying: “The move into tier 4 for many and the decision by countries to refuse entry to flights from the UK threw the Christmas travel plans of thousands, whether visiting friends and family or going on holiday, into disarray.
“However, this disruption will also add to the considerable pent-up demand which already exists for domestic and overseas holidays and many will take advantage of the great deals available after Christmas, the traditional sales period for the industry.
“Although some may choose to book later in the year, a large part of the pleasure provided by a holiday is in its anticipation, something to look forward to throughout the bleak winter months.”
The traditional Boxing Day holiday sales, meanwhile, went ahead with thousands of deals released on to the market, but tour operators are under no illusion that they will be snapped up. “We’re not going to see the usual sombrero booking pattern with a big burst of family holiday bookings at the start of the year,” said Thomas Cook Holidays’ head of brand, David Child.
“It will be a gradual incline towards Easter.” Nevertheless, the company said on Saturday that traffic to the Thomas Cook website had been double the normal daily level and that people were buying, not just browsing. Destinations people were booking for 2021 included Spain, Greece and Dubai, said Child. “It seems like as we entered this new winter lockdown people’s thoughts switched to summer getaways.”