Coronavirus forces London tourist guides to adapt

London, United Kingdom  |  Mon, August 31, 2020  | 11:23 pm

“I don’t know if you remember, but we’re living through a pandemic right now,” Joel Robinson says with a grin as he launches his Jack the Ripper tour into the East End of London.

Robinson, a trained actor and history buff who works for the London For A Local tourist company, goes on to illustrate best practice to his nine clients about social distancing.

While he doesn’t wear them himself, he advises the visitors to wear masks and gloves before setting off down London’s once-gloomy Victorian-era alleyways.

Robinson tells the story of the still unidentified serial murderer of five women who stalked the streets of Whitechapel in 1888, down deserted side streets and past shiny new houses.

Tourist guides in London are steadily resuming their work as lockdown restrictions are relaxed, and adapting to new health and safety legislation to curb the spread of the virus.

Numbers are actually reduced but the most updated is the history of the clients.

Where Robinson and walking guides like him played primarily to foreign visitors, consumers are now mostly British.

Dwindling numbers of clients abroad are primarily due to quarantine measures placed on international tourists by the British Government.

“We’ve got even more Britons than we had,” said one of Robinson’s colleagues, Olivia Calvert. “This is a big change. They demand something new, something different.”

Anne and Nick Garner, a couple in their fifties from near Manchester, in northwest England, are among the home-grown visitors moving around the old haunts of the Ripper.

“We would have been abroad but we wanted to come to London,” Anne Garner said after her insight into the city’s bloodthirsty East End history.

Getting creative

The 90-minute Jack the Ripper tour is one of the most successful in London, alongside the Harry Potter tour and another visit Soho’s sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll hotspots.

“British people already know the famous monuments in London so they expect something else,” Calvert said.

Antony Robbins is an independent guide associated with Guild of Tourist Guides, the Blue Badge Tourist Guides national professional association across the world.

Lack of demand meant that he had to abandon his walks to Buckingham Palace from Westminster.

He led his first “fooding” tour this week, bringing a young woman and her mom to a variety of restaurants and high-end patisseries in the British capital.

“The way we work is evolving, because we have to,” he said. “We have got to be more innovative.”

While some guides have been able to go back to work, it is hard for many tourism professionals — especially freelancers who are not linked to major attractions.

Just six workers have returned to work at London With A Local, and the number of weekly guided tours has been cut by half.

And forecasts for the months ahead don’t make reading easy.

Loss of income 

This week the World Travel & Tourism Council said the UK economy would lose about £22 billion ($29 billion, € 24 billion) this year due to the outbreak.

British tourism promotion body VisitBritain also expects a 73 % decrease in the number of foreign visitors in 2020, to 11 million people — a decline that is primarily blamed on grounded aircraft and travel restrictions.

Especially in London, guides are worried about the lack of American visitors, who have a culture of tipping well but are currently also subject to quarantine restrictions.

Approximately 85 % of tourist spending in the British capital is overseas, putting at risk almost three million jobs in the UK funded by travel and tourism, the WTTC said.

At London With A Local, Spanish tours have not restarted — unsurprisingly, because Spain’s arrivals to the UK have been forced to quarantine for themselves since July.

The figures don’t lie as this year’s independent guide and blue badge holder, Pepe Martinez, compares them to last.

“June is one of the biggest months. Last year, I made 46 visits. I only made eight this year. Six of those were online,” he said.

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