The tourism industry has been devastated by Covid-19 but Michelle Gorman, managing director of Visit County Durham, believes there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the year ahead. She talks to PETER BARRON

As she looks back on a year in which the tourism sector has been “decimated” by the coronavirus pandemic, Michelle Gorman considers an unexpected outcome.

That’s because the biggest public health crisis in living memory has served to underline just how important tourism is to Durham’s economy.

And, with a hopeful new year dawning, following the launch of the vaccination programme, she is confident that there are robust plans in place to ensure that Durham’s world-class tourism offer will play a crucial part in the county's recovery.

In 2019, 20.13 million visitors came to the county, contributing £955m to the local economy. By September, the forecast was for a fall of 43.6 per cent in annual visits in 2020, equating to a loss of £434.63m, and an estimated reduction of 5,587 jobs. With another national lockdown, and the North-East ending 2020 with Tier 4 restrictions, the final statistics will inevitably be worse.

“Tourism is all about the movement of people, and with widespread travel restrictions, nowhere in the sector has escaped the devastating impacts,” says Michelle.

“It has been absolutely disastrous but what it has also done is show how much tourism contributes to economic spend. For too long, people thought of it in terms of buckets and spades, but the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the visitor economy can’t be underestimated.”

During the course of the crisis, there has been much to admire about the resilience of the tourism sector in Durham, with businesses adapting their offers, striking a balance between public safety and commercial viability, and supporting communities.

“It’s been hugely impressive and humbling to see the response: from gin distilleries producing hand sanitiser; independent businesses making online deliveries; to hotels and restaurants supplying meals for key workers,” says Michelle. “And that resilience, and connection to our communities, bodes well for recovery.”

Businessiq: Hall Hill FarmHall Hill Farm

A shining example is Hall Hill Farm, near Lanchester, which won the Visitor Economy Award at the recent County Durham Together Awards, for its innovation in reaching millions of people around the world with daily videos of life on the farm.

And Michelle is convinced that there will be a significant ripple effect in 2021, with new opportunities emerging as well as an appetite to rediscover the tourism gems that Durham is so well known for.

The pandemic has placed fresh emphasis on health and wellbeing; the love of the outdoors and nature; heritage and culture; and spending time with family and friends – and Durham is perfectly placed to benefit from all of them.

Online searches have underlined the desire to be out in the fresh air, aligned with a heightened awareness of the health benefits of being in the countryside, and the county, of course, is blessed with stunning landscapes.

Travel restrictions, and the need to stay close to home, have reinvigorated an interest in local heritage, along with a sense that familiarity makes people feel safe. And, having been separated for so long, when free movement becomes safe, it will surely result in a boom in loved ones wanting to reconnect and share experiences.

“We have always promoted the county outside of the region, but the hyperlocal tourism audience has become really important,” says Michelle.

Amid fears that the best-known “honeypot destinations” might be overcrowded, people have gone searching for new spaces, and discovered that Durham has even more to offer than they might previously have known.

Businessiq: Michelle GormanMichelle Gorman

The pandemic has also resulted in a greater awareness of the power of technology, and vibrant virtual campaigns will continue to play a valuable role in showcasing Durham’s attractions and experiences across the globe, but nothing can match the joy of simply being there.

Michelle believes another consequence of the pandemic will be much closer partnerships being forged at national, regional, and local level.

“As a destination management organisation, we actively interface with private and public sectors, businesses, as well as national and local government, and there has been greater than ever collaboration in all those areas,” she says. “There has been a renewed sense that the recovery depends on working together and overcoming traditional boundaries – long may that continue.”

2021 has been designated as “Durham’s Year of Pilgrimage”, so many boundaries will be crossed through the launch of six new walking trails across the North-East, positioning the region as “the Christian Crossroads of the British Isles”, and bringing the fascinating stories of the Northern Saints to life.

Durham Cathedral will be the focal point of the Northern Saints Trails in a celebration of the region’s rich religious heritage, but it goes much deeper than that. Whether people are interested in religious heritage or not, it is a way of linking back to the wider emphasis on health and wellbeing that comes from being out and about with families and friends in magnificent open spaces.

Businessiq: Durham CathedralDurham Cathedral

“Who wouldn’t want to do that after the lockdowns of such a challenging year?” asks Michelle.

With Durham at its heart, it is a project that links Hartlepool to Northumberland, as well as collaborations further afield with York and Scotland. The partnerships have even reached as far as northern Spain, with the county being imaginatively connected with the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrims’ routes leading to the shrine of the apostle, Saint James the Great, in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia.

“As the unprecedented circumstances we still find ourselves in resolve, I’m very optimistic about the future of the county’s visitor economy as we respond, recover and reset.” says Michelle. 

“The Visit County Durham team has responded brilliantly to the challenges, we have a clear strategic direction, we know where we need to go, and we’ve got exciting plans in place to take us there.”

After dark times, and in historic footsteps, a new journey of discovery is waiting to begin for Durham.