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Not this year: Great British summer getaway takes a pause

LONDON – The air would normally be full of anticipation with kids excitedly planning the coming two weeks and parents anxiously making sure everyone gets on the flight.

The first Friday after schools in Britain close for the summer is always one of the busiest for the country’s airports as families escape for the warmer climes of southern Europe, from Portugal’s Algarve in the west to the island nation of Cyprus to the east.

Not this year. The coronavirus pandemic has ended all that.

The concourses at London’s Gatwick Airport, which is the U.K.’s second-busiest, are eerily quiet. In any normal year, it would be the busiest day for departures with 85,000 travelers leaving - only 7,500 are set to take off Friday amid concerns about flying in the era of COVID-19.

Instead, it’s all about the “staycation" - fish and chips by the British seaside or woodland retreats inland.

“One of the hardest things for me this lockdown was the realization that I wouldn’t get to go home this year,” said Deborah Manzanares, a 48-year-old Spanish native who lives in southeast London with her husband and two pre-teen sons.

The family opted to take two week-long holidays in the U.K., instead. Walks and mini-trains and crazy golf — that’s this summer's fare.

Britain’s traditional seaside towns, such as Blackpool in the northwest of England and Margate in the southeast, are set to gain but campsites, holiday parks and other resorts in more remote parts of the U.K. are also recording bumper business, stretching out into the autumn months that usually see minimal demand.

The British government, which this month eased restrictions on international travel, has been urging families to take their vacations at home to give the hospitality sector a much-needed boost and safeguard tens of thousands of jobs. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he will be holidaying in the U.K. with his partner and their new-born son.

“This country is uniquely blessed with fantastic places to holiday, whether coastal or otherwise,” he said. “And I am certainly going to be doing that.”

The sector will need all the help it can get as inbound visits to the U.K. from abroad are expected to fall by around two-thirds from last year’s 41 million visits, part of a global collapse in tourism. The government has also cut the sales tax for tourism and hospitality to 5% from 20% and is introducing an “eat out to help out” voucher scheme for August.

“After the last few months, we know that people are desperate to get away for a short break or longer, family holidays, where they feel safe and can relax,” said Away Resorts Chief Executive Carl Castledine.

Away Resorts, which has five holiday parks across the U.K., has seen sales hit an all-time high after the government announced in June that it would let the travel and tourism sector in England reopen in July. Bookings are up 44% on the same time last year, for example.

It’s the same story for Haulfryn, which operates 14 resorts in the U.K., including Edgeley Park in the Surrey Hills, around 35 miles (56 kms) southwest of London.

Philip Pantelis, the park’s general manager, said bookings are 43% up across the group compared with last year. Many enquiries are coming from families who have never taken a vacation before in quiet, rural retreats like Edgeley Park, and who would typically opt instead for the hustle and bustle of resorts like Benidorm in Spain or the Greek island of Mykonos.

“It’s clear people need a break from all that’s happened and they are choosing to stay at home rather than go abroad,” he said.

The virus has reversed a trend that started in the 1960s when hotel construction boomed in many countries in southern Europe, particularly in Spain, where the fascist dictator of the time, General Francisco Franco, saw tourism as a fast track to economic development.

With flights becoming more affordable for families, the growth of all-inclusive holidays deals and membership of the European Union easing restrictions on movement, British families became among the most avid travelers to the sun-soaked beach resorts in the Mediterranean Sea.

Whether this year’s “staycation” persists beyond this year will, like everything else, depend on what happens with the virus.

For now though, families will do what they can to enjoy the last few weeks of summer at home as best they can.

“The rest of the summer will be spent doing day trips to the various parks around us, because if London has got one thing that other cities in the world lack, it’s plenty of beautiful city parks to have socially distanced picnics and sundowners,” said Manzanares.

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