With travel complications and airport waiting times, will many choose to holiday in Northern Ireland for summer 2022?
The great staycation boom of 2020 got off to a cracking start.
With flights grounded, borders still closed and people generally anxious about leaving their homes for any great length of time, the word staycation became ingrained in our vocabulary.
What was once known as a quick city break or a glamping trip was given a brand new name to make it seem as if you were getting away on holiday when in actual fact you were only travelling a few hours from your home.
It offered security, comfort and most of all a form of escape at a time when these things were not guaranteed.
In 2021, there were mixed emotions from keen travellers and holidaymakers. Do you risk the flight to get shut off by the green light/ red light border system? Or perhaps technical difficulties meant that you couldn’t get the Covid app downloaded in time? Or, worst of all, your passport that you forgot went out of date in the middle of countless lockdowns hasn’t arrived in the post yet?
Despite all that, people began to teeter into the unknown and ventured abroad.
The staycation boom, however, continued to, well, boom.
Those who saw an opportunity in lockdown to launch their own self-catering accommodation or glamping pods took this chance to welcome visitors not only from across Northern Ireland but also from the Republic of Ireland and the UK, and some saw rises in business that they hadn’t seen since before the 2008 recession.
In 2021, Belfast and Portrush were named in the top 10 destinations for autumn travel across the UK by Trip Advisor.
This summer season, on the other hand, looks a little different.
Package holidays, international flights and jetting off to the sun looks much easier now than ever in a post-pandemic world… or is it?
There may be no masks, no social distancing and no traffic light system to enter countries once off limits, but there is also another factor — no staff.
In recent weeks thousands of holidaymakers have been left stranded in airports either before jetting off or in an attempt to return home after their holiday.
Flights were cancelled or delayed for myriad reasons, technical difficulties being one of the primary causes, but mainly it was because staff shortages meant airlines and airports were unable to cope with an abundance of keen travellers looking to get away to the sun after two years being stuck at home.
In the midst of the pandemic, the travel industry was completely decimated.
Staff were made redundant as flights were grounded for extended lengths of time and so left to work elsewhere and, as of yet, the industry has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
This has indeed had a serious knock-on effect to travel in 2022, with the industry struggling to meet the demand of the rising number of keen jet-setters.
But, the question remains: is the great staycation boom officially over now that the foreign travel industry is back up (but not so much running), or are people still keen to stay home and enjoy the sights and sounds on their doorstep?
Managing Director of Oasis Travel, Sandra Corkin, has said that the recent travel chaos has not deterred a number of determined travellers from flying abroad and that there has been a “real excitement” for foreign travel.
“During the pandemic people were wanting to stay local and even just travelling around the UK but this year there is a real excitement to get away to the sunshine after not being able to travel for the past two years,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“There was certainly a slow start to the year because there was still a lot of restrictions in place but as soon as they lifted people were starting to book.
“Having had basically no business since the pandemic hit, the travel industry will still take many years to fully recover, but it has been great to see business getting back to normal.”
Sandra, who has over 40 years of experience in the travel industry, has said that recent bookings — both new bookings and bookings which were previously delayed — is currently at a higher level than before the pandemic.
“There’s a real excitement and willingness to travel now,” said Sandra.
“Especially to Europe and Mediterranean cruises in particular.”
She added that, given the recent flight cancellations, holidaymakers are opting for package holidays when booking through an agent.
“There is definitely a demand for Atoll packages, because people want to make sure their trip — and money — is protected.
“A lot of people haven’t travelled so they want to make sure they are being kept up to date with entry requirements and different things.
“Booking through an agent also offers a bit more reassurance if perhaps things go wrong, people will know who to call rather than struggling to get through to the airline,” she continued.
“But despite the flight delays and cancellations of late, we haven’t had anyone turn around to us and say they weren’t travelling purely because of that; people have missed travelling abroad and seeking new destinations, and it’s great to see.”
One staycations expert, however, believes that staying local when considering a holiday offers a greater chance of security.
Michelle Davis is a freelance marketing consultant who started her online Instagram blog and website Staycations NI in 2020 when the foreign travel industry began to wind down due to the pandemic.
“I felt that, when we were eventually allowed to come out of lockdown a little bit, but not entirely, a lot of people in Northern Ireland didn’t actually know much about what was available to them right on their doorstep.” said Michelle.
“I felt that these amazing places, which were mainly geared towards tourists, could offer a really great experience for locals too, so that is where the idea came from.”
Michelle, who has over 10,000 followers on Instagram, argued that the staycation boom across the region, while not reaching the heady heights of summer 2020, or indeed summer 2021, is still extremely buoyant, and still very popular.
“Even before the pandemic, people’s attitudes have always been the same. They are always looking for two things when it comes to travelling both domestically and internationally — good value for money and a low risk factor,” she said.
“People want reassurance, that’s why people always opt for the free cancellation offer on Booking.com and, while I would have said perhaps last month that definitely people would be preferring to travel abroad for a sun holiday compared to ‘staycationing’ this year, that’s not the case anymore,” she added.
“With all these cancelled flights and chaos at the airports, I definitely think this could start to put people off, and they will start to think twice now about what they’re going to do for a summer holiday.”
Michelle told this newspaper that ‘staycationing’ offers a “safer bet” when perhaps travelling with young children or a large family.
“You don’t have to worry about cancelled flights or what if someone gets sick when holidaying at home, and you have the whole island of Ireland to explore if you’re from Northern Ireland and people may feel it is the safer bet at the minute,” she said.
“There has also definitely been an increase over the past two years of visitors from the Republic of Ireland travelling to Northern Ireland for a staycation.
“While this time last year most of my followers were from here and only two or three percent were from the Republic of Ireland, that has now increased to 12%.” When asked about how the rising cost of living at the minute is impacting how people spend their money — both for staycations and foreign holidays — Michelle said that it all comes down to “how people see value”. “There really is a holiday, or a staycation, for everyone,” she said.
“People may say that a foreign holiday is the same price — or in some cases cheaper — than a staycation, but it’s all relative. Everyone has a budget and some people may pay £300 for a night away to a hotel but it’s about paying for that experience.
“You can get a renovated barn in Co Down for as little as £80 a night right up to a self-catering lodge in a seaside town for £200, but some of the more pricey places could sleep up to eight people, and there are definitely benefits to it.”
Last summer, there were some self-catering homes on the North Coast costing thousands of pounds to rent for just one week and a Co Antrim rental company is saying that people are still willing to spend the money for it.
Keith Walls has been proprietor of Causeway Coast Holiday Rentals since 2008.
The company offers over 500 holiday rentals and long-term rentals all across the north coast; from Portrush, Portstewart and Portballintrae to Castlerock, Ballycastle and Downhill.
“Some of the rentals start at £300 for three or four days right up to £4,000 a week, but the higher end properties could sleep up to three families, about ten people. When you divide it up, it’s appealing to some people because you don’t have to organise flights and travel, it’s simply hop in the car and head up to the North Coast for the week.” he said.
He said that last year was a “bumper year” for the business, on par with bookings made on the year of the Open in 2019.
“This year we are definitely seeing an increase in overseas visitors who weren’t able to travel throughout the pandemic, especially golfers coming from the US, Canada and even Dubai and Barbados.”
He added that people are also now booking outside of the summer season.
“July and August were always full; we could have filled our properties about 20 times over, but now we are seeing bookings outside of that in June and September and even January and February,” said Keith.
“The pandemic has allowed people to see what we have to offer; we are now finally on par with coastal destinations across the UK such as Cornwall, Devon and some places down the south of England.
“We are now catching up with loads of activities for people to do such as surf schools and water sports, so people no longer have to go abroad for these things when we can do them here on our doorstep.”