Keeping museums and galleries closed when shops reopen is ‘extraordinary’

Neil Lancefield, PA Transport Correspondent
·3-min read

Forcing England’s indoor visitor attractions to remain closed when non-essential shops reopen is “extraordinary”, a tourism industry leader has said.

Bernard Donoghue, director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva), made the comment as he revealed major UK tourist sites suffered a 70% decline in visitor numbers last year compared with 2019.

Under Boris Johnson’s road map for easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions, the earliest non-essential retailers can reopen is April 12.

Although that is the same date for outdoor attractions such as zoos and theme parks, indoor venues including museums and galleries must wait until May 17.

That is after the Easter and May Day bank holidays, which are normally crucial for the tourism sector.

Mr Donoghue told the PA news agency: “There is huge disappointment that indoor visitor attractions in England can’t open until the 17th of May, five weeks after non-essential retail.

“That’s something that we just don’t understand and have been raising with Government.

“It’s extraordinary to me that you can open Primark and H&M but not the Tate and V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum).

“Not least because, according to Public Health England, there hasn’t been a single case of coronavirus transmission at a visitor attraction in the UK. They’ve proved to be Covid safe.”

Alva figures show that the UK’s leading tourist attractions suffered a “devastatingly hard year” due to the pandemic.

Some 45.4 million visits were recorded across 294 sites last year, down from 151.3 million during 2019.

Among the worst affected by the crisis were south-east London’s Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) and Edinburgh Castle, as tourism in major cities was decimated.

RMG, which consists of Cutty Sark, National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House and Royal Observatory, saw a 96% year-on-year decline in visitor numbers, moving it from 9th to 130th in the overall ranking.

Edinburgh Castle, which is normally the most visited paid-for attraction in Scotland, suffered an 87% decrease in demand.

Quiet streets near Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle had an 87% drop in visitor numbers last year (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Many outdoor venues moved up the ranking due to suffering smaller falls in visits, as they were the first to reopen once restrictions eased during the first lockdown.

West London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, jumped seven places to fourth, and Surrey’s RHS Garden Wisley moved up 21 spots to number seven.

The UK’s most visited attraction outside London was Chester Zoo, which went from 14th to 6th after recording 1.2 million visits.

It saw a surge in demand after warning it was “at risk of extinction” due to huge financial losses.

Mr Donoghue said: “People were clamouring to be outside and to be with friends and family in open spaces and places that they loved.

“We saw really significant appetite to go to places like zoos, safari parks, botanic gardens, coasts and countryside.

“All of those, and places like National Trust and English Heritage properties, did really well because people wanted to escape their homes and be out in the fresh air.

“We anticipate that happening exactly the same this year.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We have been clear the reopening of society will be done in a cautious, phased way and we are supporting businesses and organisations to prepare.

“Our support for the arts is unprecedented, with a package worth nearly £2 billion helping save over 75,000 jobs. We are doing all we can to help our world-class attractions return strongly and open as soon as possible.”