Responsible tourism in England

England is one of the most visited countries in the world, but most travelers head to a handful of well-known destinations, which then suffer from large crowds while other destinations struggle. Of the top 20 most-visited attractions in England in 2018, around 50 percent are in London, while several others, such as Bath, Stonehenge and the Bodleian Library are easily reached on day trips from the capital. Of the remainder, only a handful such as lake cruises in Bowness and the Eden Project, are not found in an urban environment.

We believe that for English tourism to be sustainable, it requires responsible management of popular destinations to ensure they are not overwhelmed by visitors.

People & culture

Grockles, botox & bodice-rippers

The problem now is that it has been sharpened up for the tourists. It’s too clean. It’s like an old person with Botox. You don’t get the same sense of the past. It’s too clean, too sharp
– Ken Loach on his home city, Bath
In Cornwall, a not-entirely complimentary term for the vacationmakers that flood the region’s beaches and towns every summer is ‘grockles’. Outside of London, Cornwall is one of the most over-visited parts of England, with a dramatic coastline, golden sandy beaches, good weather and waves that draw surfers like moths to a flame. In recent years the ‘Poldark effect’ has brought a new influx of visitors seeking the locations of the BBC’s Sunday night bodice-ripper, just as Game of Thrones transformed tourism in Dubrovnik and Iceland, and Lord of the Rings New Zealand.

Cornwall is a perfect example of an English ‘honeypot’ destination that has been over-promoted for years at the expense of others. In key locations such as Falmouth, Newquay and St. Ives, as well as popular beaches, local people are massively outnumbered by tourists in July and August with a corresponding detrimental effect on their communities and the environment.

Meanwhile, over the last few decades English vacationmakers have taken advantage of cheap flights and the strong pound, and inbound tourism has been concentrated on Cornwall, London and a select few other destinations. Many of England’s lesser-known coastal communities have been left to fade away.

Responsible Travel’s home base, Brighton, is one of the few to escape that fate, largely thanks to its proximity to London. In general however, the country’s seaside towns are seriously struggling.

Regenerate, regenerate

Many parts of England, particularly seaside towns and other coastal areas, are heavily dependent on tourism, an industry renowned for seasonal, low-paid employment. They’re steadily being hollowed out as young people seek opportunities elsewhere, leading to deprivation which in turn affects tourism numbers. In countries such as England where the main tourist season is quite short, earning a sustainable income year-round can prove difficult. Resorts including Hunstanton, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Skegness and Scarborough retain plenty of historic charm, but underfunding and inaccessibility, combined with a shift of focus to destinations elsewhere, has allowed them to fade.

How you can help
Simply put: don’t follow the crowds. Skip the city breaks, and give England’s crowded tourism hotspots a swerve, instead looking to idyllic, isolated accommodations in the countryside. If you do really want to see the Tower of London, or the beaches of Cornwall, then consider visiting outside the busy summer months instead when you’ll have a more pleasant experience, and tourism businesses will benefit from income in low season. And next time you fancy a visit to the seaside, remember there are many other attractive resorts around the English coast that aren’t Brighton and Falmouth.

Wherever you go, think: spend local. Much of the English tourism industry is small-scale, making it quite easy to inject money into the domestic economy. You’ll get a warmer welcome from a locally owned bed and breakfast than you will from a faceless international hotel chain. You’ll eat fresher (and better) dishes with local produce, and also dramatically slash your vacation’s carbon footprints. And the money you spend will stay for longer in the local area, boosting the community and providing employment prospects for local people.


Bringing wilderness back

It’s very easy to become depressed when considering the scale of biodiversity loss worldwide, with large mammals such as polar bears and orangutans the most visible yet just the very tip of the (melting) iceberg. England is no exception: when was the last time you saw a hedgehog, or a skylark? But while the challenge to protect English wildlife shouldn’t be underestimated, 50 years ago it would have been difficult to imagine how much progress would have been made.
Fox hunting has been largely wiped out, for one thing, while many species once on the brink of extinction in England are making a comeback: beavers in Devon; turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies on the Knepp estate in West Sussex, sea eagles on the Isle of Wight. Between 1999 and 2019 there has been a massive increase – over 100 percent – of marine and land protected areas, and in the same time period two English national parks were created: the New Forest and the South Downs.
So yes, biodiversity around the world, and in England, is in a state of worsening crisis and it’s going to require massive investment, innovative thinking and political will to reverse it. But there are pinpricks of success already, and we know at least part of the answer: give animals the habitat they need and they will thrive.

Growing pains

One of the most controversial infrastructure developments of recent years in England (including Boris Johnson’s characteristically ridiculous Garden Bridge fiasco) is the ongoing saga of the Heathrow Airport expansion. The project, due for completion in 2026 assuming it goes ahead as planned, will involve rerouting the M25 motorway, diverting rivers and the demolition of over 700 homes in order to construct a new runway, while the airport’s other expansion plans will cost billions and take some 30 years to complete. The proposed economic benefits of Heathrow expansion, disputed by some, are taken to be around £5.5 billion a year, but of course the cost to the environment, as well as the surrounding community, will be calamitous.

The world is facing a climate crisis. With the aviation industry one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, the plain fact is that we need to be encouraging people to fly less, not more. Responsible Travel is one of the few travel companies to oppose Heathrow expansion, and we continue to believe that this misguided project will, eventually, have to be abandoned in the face of cold reality and public disapproval.

Of course, Heathrow is not the only airport thinking about expansion. Another London airport, Stansted, wants to increase its own passenger volume by five million a year. When the council delayed the project, there were inevitable complaints from tourism officials who claimed “the move could prevent tourism growth”.

We say growth at the expense of the environment, and local communities, is the height of recklessness. It’s high time that the English tourism industry, along with the government, started to focus on sustainable management of the numbers and destinations we already have, not rampant expansion and profit that jeopardises all of our futures.

How you can help

Planning to vacation in England? We’d love to see you. But if you’re able to, please consider coming by train instead of by air. From Paris to London by train is just over two hours. If you don’t have any other option but to fly then the following steps will help reduce the carbon footprint of your vacation:

Fly direct Fly economy Stay as long as you can Look for airlines that are taking active steps to reduce their emissions Eat locally produced food that doesn’t have stacks of air miles attached to it Travel by rail or road while in England, avoiding domestic flights
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Luke Porter] [Cornwall: Barney Moss] [Hedgehog: Michael Gabler]