Cornwall residents have a love-hate relationships with tourists at the best of times — Coronavirus intensified feelings throughout 2020. For CornwallLive, it was a tale of two hashtags. Audience and Content Director Jacqui Merrington reported for Behind Local News…
It’s not easy being a journalist when the ‘emmets’ descend on the Westcountry. This year more than ever, this term of disaffection that is actually a Cornish word for ants, reflects the contradictory relationship that the Cornish, in particular, have with incomers.
Maintaining the balance between welcoming tourists to our shores and our businesses and being wary of the impact this influx of people may have on our ability to social distance in a pandemic is something of a minefield.
For many Cornish people, the River Tamar marks a national boundary between England and the Celtic state of Kernow. If you’re not born in Truro with Cornish parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, you’re classed a ‘blow in’.
Tourists are a necessary evil — vital to the economy, but some feel life would be better if they weren’t eating our pasties, clogging up the roads and pushing up house prices beyond the means of local people, as was so brilliantly captured in Mark Jenkins’ 2019 film Bait.
As the government announced a national lockdown on March 23, the strength of feeling against incomers rose to an all time high. It seemed as though some Cornish folk were willing to march down the A30 with pitchforks to ensure the DFLs (Down From Londons) didn’t flock West to escape the cities.
Never had the county been so aware of its lack of resources. ‘We’ve only got 19 ICU beds’ became a Cornish idiom for ‘Don’t come here with your London germs’.
At the start of lockdown, CornwallLive with its sister titles in Plymouth and Devon launched #ComeBackLater — a campaign encouraging visitors to obey the rules of lockdown and stay home.
It was a plea to second home owners and all tourists not to drive down but to wait until restrictions were lifted before visiting the Westcountry. It was a plea on behalf of NHS staff, police, the RNLI, the elderly and the vulnerable to stay away until it was safer to visit Cornwall.
Potty-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay became the poster boy for those that ignored the rules. As he and his family pitched up in the millionaires’ playground of Rock, taunting locals with their Instagram photos and 100 mile bike rides, Cornwall turned on them.
For CornwallLive, Ramsay’s exploits were a source of great content but the stories he generated had to be balanced with the imperative not to add fuel to an increasingly incendiary atmosphere.
Throughout March, April and May, it was the stories of lockdown flouters like Ramsay, the campervanners being turned back by police and visitors being given short shrift by locals, like the Cornish farmer who sprayed slurry all over a car parked in his field that drove the most engagement with readers.
But as soon as the restrictions started to lift, CornwallLive had an important role to play in making everyone aware the county was open for business and tourists were not only welcome but vital to our jobs, our prospects, our prosperity as a county.
We joined our colleagues across the country in promoting #IAmOpen day on June 15 as shops and businesses were given the green light to reopen.
We promoted the pubs, the holiday parks and the attractions as they each started to reopen and welcome back visitors. We wrote about the best beaches and villages and places to visit. As July came, it was starting to feel like a ‘normal’ holiday season.
The visitors came — in their hundreds of thousands. They queued down the M5 and the A30. They filled the hotels and the campsites and the beaches. And they just kept coming.
By the start of August, Cornwall was full to bursting.
There’s not a single tent pitch available in Cornwall right now. People are camped in laybys, at roadsides and in fields. There’s barely space to pitch a windbreak on a sunny beach day.
Hotels are advertising rooms at £1,500 a night in a bid to STOP people booking rooms. Pubs and restaurants are opting out of the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme because they’re too busy.
Showing people just how busy the beaches are at weekends has proved a huge draw for readers. Telling the stories of what it’s really like to live in our tourist hotspots, like St Ives, or how difficult it is to social distance in our busiest seaside towns, like Padstow, have also attracted a huge audience.
And with the crowds have come dozens of celebrity visitors to Cornwall, from Peter Andre to David Beckham, Jesy Nelson to Jamie Redknapp.
There were fears the coronavirus rate in Cornwall could rise with the influx of visitors and there’s been huge interest in updates on the number of cases, but in fact the rate has fallen in recent weeks.
While an undercurrent of anti-visitor feeling remains, the overwhelming feeling in Cornwall is relief that the tourists have come, that the virus remains at a relatively low level and that the businesses almost crippled by lockdown are seeing a boost in trade significant enough to make up for the losses of the past few months.
We are a long, long way from being able to write a happy ending, but at least we’re moving from post-apocalyptic doomsday scenarios to the classic comeback-against-the-odds. And those ‘emmets’ are playing a leading role.