Culture and tourism recovery post Covid-19 hit by lock-downs

The restored Alexandra Palace Theatre (pre Covid-19 - image from FCB Studios)

Future Cities Forum this week discussed the future of the cultural tourism post the pandemic in the light of new Coronavirus outbreaks in Europe.

The Director of the Joan Miro Foundation in Barcelona, Marko Daniel, spoke about the experience of coming out of lock-down and then re-imposed restrictions in the city affecting visitors to the famous art museum and sculpture garden on Mont Juic, while the Chief Executive of Alexandra Palace and its 196 acres of parkland, Louise Stewart, defended London as a place where cultural tourism would survive the affects of the virus and Birmingham Royal Ballet's Chief Operating Officer, Anna Williams described the issues of taking ballet 'to the streets' where city visitors might feel safer in the open air.

Today the BBC reported that Westminster Abbey is down £12 million in revenue this year and is set to make about 20% of its staff redundant as a result of the lock-down. Meanwhile new quarantine rules for holidaymakers coming back from Spain to the UK are a major concern for Spanish city authorities with regard to tourism revenue.

During our online debate, there were questions on government funding, managing access to cultural institutions as well as approaches to open air performance and the role that cultural leaders could take in advising on planning for better public realm.

Anna Williams said:

'The funding (from government) is hugely welcome and more significant financially than expected.

The challenge for all of us, practically speaking, is when can we open safely? The funding is really needed but the impact of the pandemic will be felt for a long time. People think they can plan for 2021 now but we should allow for 20 to 30 % reductions in income beyond that.

‘One of the things I am most concerned about is the empty city centre…my thinking is how will we live again in cities, and how do we find the public confidence to enjoy them? How do we create cultural events where people can gather?

‘There are lots of issues about putting live performance on the streets – on security, flat floors for dancers etc to have ballet on the high street, but we need to talk together and collaborate widely. We are planning for live events to reconnect the city with culture and it’s very important how we connect with very diverse communities within the city limits post Covid-19.'

Director of the Joan Miro Foundation, Marko Daniel, described the effect of the C-virus outbreak in Barcelona:

'We were getting to used to a return to culture in June but the enthusiasm of the population led to new outbreaks. Barcelona, L'Hospitalet and Lleida are all affected. The Miro can be open but no organised activity, lectures, performances, conferences can take place

'We have had moments of being very worried about funding but we are well supported by the public sector – there is no question in my mind that recovery will not happen in 2021 and we will have to wait to 2022 for international visitor numbers to return to 2019 levels.'

Chief Executive of Alexandra Palace, Louise Stewart commented:

'Over the last decade we have gone from a bit player to a major one with four million visits but we have slipped back five years because of Covid-19. We re-opened our refurbished theatre successfully in 2018 but it’s the four years following that count. We are busy but the events currently in the diary will not support the full overheads of the seven acre building and 196 acre parkland estate. We can control visitor flow but don’t have budget to do masses of Perspex etc so we will focus on managing customers.

‘On pop-up theatre and moving outside, we do this already and we run immersive theatre in our unrestored basement, and we have theatre planned for our park for family audiences, as they may be denied holidays even in the UK so they will need things to do in North London.

‘You still have a venue to fund if you go out to do pop-up theatre. The secondary spend from customers and tourists on drinks and food is very important and it certainly does support putting on performances and exhibitions.

‘The problem – in planning terms – is that cities have been dominated by the commercial value of real estate and by business interests but not by visitor experience. Before Covid-19 happened there was a lot of focus on sustainable transport but now consider the effect of diesel pollution with people preferring car travel as we put restaurant tables onto pavements for social distancing – look at the contradiction!

‘The challenge is about how we in the culture sector get involved in creating places for people. The Victorians understood this, and they had a strong sense of civic purpose when planning cities. I have sat in council meetings on planning for new housing when there is no mention of the creation of new green space. Private developers just ‘use’ our green space when promoting their projects.

‘The planning system has just changed in response to failing high streets and the pandemic recovery. There is some good in the changes but some are horrific. The mantra of ’build, build, build’ contains nothing about creating more great spaces where people can be outside, and nothing about the importance of restoration. There are many disused heritage buildings in the UK which could retrofitted for better energy use and re-purposed successfully.’

Marko Daniel added:

‘It’s absolutely true that the policy view in Barcelona is about long-term control. As Director of the Joan Miro Foundation I sit on the Public Sculpture and Monuments Committee for the city and therefore I get to comment on all proposals regarding big to small developments affecting public space in Barcelona. All proposals are studied with remarkable care and attention.

‘During the C Virus the city really observed how reductions in traffic helped to create a remarkable increase in air quality. Many lanes on major roads have been painted out and handed over to pedestrian use. Some central streets remain closed and it is recognised that if we want physical distancing, we need to give people - not cars - more physical space.’

Meanwhile a recent report from Colliers International suggested that cities such as Plymouth would bounce back quicker than London for tourism.

The Recovery Hotels Index which analyses the impact on the rate at which hotel markets recover across the UK has positioned Plymouth as the top city in the ranking of 35 markets nationwide. The area's predicted success is due to the fact that it benefits from a predominantly domestic tourism base (86%),as well as a significant portion of its domestic travellers visiting for leisure purposes.

The range of leisure activities in the city include the Theatre Royal (where the Birmingham Royal Ballet regularly tour), the National Marine Aquarium - the largest in the UK - along with the Royal Citadel and The Barbican. The city is also the last city along the coastline before Cornwall, making it a popular base for coach and group tours to explore the English Riviera sub-region.

In addition, Plymouth's hotel room stock is largely concentrated at the lower end of the market, with budget brands such as Premier Inn and Travelodge forming a large part of the offer.

London ranks the lowest in Collier's Recovery Index owing to its position to a strong reliance on both international tourism (around 60%) and the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) sector, as well as having one of the lowest proportions of budget hotel room stock.`

Louise Stewart of Alexandra Palace, commenting on London's strong cultural offer said :

‘Some cities in the UK like Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle have worked very hard on making their centres attractive to visitors and pedestrians. It will be interesting to see how these cities fare as streets have been rejuvenated to focus on the experiential with both local populations and visitors. I think London will bounce back from the pandemic as it has a dispersed cultural offer. The challenge is how the smaller centres come back.’

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