East’s tourism bounceback ‘set to continue,’ says attraction boss

Martin Dupee is general manager of Pensthorpe Natural Park, owned by Bill and Deb Jordan

Martin Dupee, general manager of Pensthorpe Natural Park, pictured with Bill and Deb Jordan, expects Norfolk and Suffolk attractions to enjoy another boom in 2022 - Credit: Denise Bradley

Norfolk and Suffolk attractions have enjoyed an “extremely busy” year — and look poised for a strong 2022, says a regional tourism boss.

In spite of the restrictions placed on them, Martin Dupee – who is chairman of Norfolk and Suffolk Tourist Attractions Association – said businesses had been able to capitalise on the difficulties in travelling abroad during the pandemic and create summer “staycations” to remember.

Mr Dupee is general manager of Pensthorpe Natural Park at Fakenham, a 700-acre attraction on the River Wensum which includes a nature reserve and a range of attractions for children.

The outdoor nature of the site has helped it to enjoy a booming holiday season as visitors flocked to enjoy the great outdoors. 

It was able to maintain social distancing and spacing rules – but it has meant a tighter grip on numbers. Where the children’s play area might have accommodated 175 before, it has been reined in to 100 even after restrictions were removed.

“We have been in a very strong position,” he says. “Most attractions I’m aware of have been extremely busy – even in the period where restrictions were in place.”

He believes the staycation wave is far from over and that visitors will return in high numbers.

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With the weather on side he is expecting attractions to have as many – or more – visitors next year.

“We’ll be able to have the spring which we missed out on,” he says. Easter weekend is seen as a key driver of success for the industry but with restrictions still in place attractions missed out this year  taking a big bite out of their earnings. However, they bounced back strongly after that.

“The Easter weekend – a four day weekend – it’s always been the biggest and once you lose that you never get it back.

“I look at my numbers at Pensthorpe and while we have had a strong summer and a fairly good autumn we’ll never make up for spring.”

He couldn’t picture the international market being back at 100% next year, he adds.

“Domestic tourism in my view next year is going to be good,” he says. 

The fly in the ointment is recruitment. Many previously employed in the industry have found alternative roles – and with businesses all opening up at once the competition for workers has been fierce.

Pensthorpe employs 50 to 55 people in the summer and 35 to 40 in the winter months, but where the attraction has had a vacancy it has filled it.

“We are a really small team anyway,” he says. “I made a conscious decision that the very day we opened if we are opening for business everyone is off furlough.”

By early May the team was back on site. 

“I’m really, really positive for 2022. I think with a fair wind we are looking at a good year for tourism in East Anglia. Nationally I think it’s going to be a good year.”

International tourists weren’t coming over at this point and would take time to return, he predicts.

The industry is lobbying hard to keep VAT at a discounted 12.5% to help it compete against continental tourism businesses which face just 7-9% VAT charges against the UK’s 20%. UK VAT went up on October 1 to 12.5% having been at 5% to help them recover.

“Everything will come back to the state in the end,” argues Mr Dupee, suggesting a successful tourism sector meant more money in the chancellor’s coffers. 

Continuation of the VAT discount would help businesses to hold their prices and compete, he says.

Norfolk and Suffolk have plenty of attractions to draw in visitors – and independent businesses in high streets appeared to be thriving where chains had fallen – but creating experiences is key, he says.

“It’s our job as tourism businesses to promote what we do.”