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Covid: Worry over 'holiday in Wales' advice to tourists

By Carys Betteley
BBC News

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image copyrightJohn Lucas / Geograph
image captionThe countryside around Machynlleth is one of the area's biggest draws for tourists, a councillor says

In a week where a celebrity was pictured enjoying a trip to Powys and a TV travel expert called Wales "easy" for a holiday, residents have spoken of their concerns.

Much of the country is subject to local lockdowns with unnecessary travel in and out of those areas banned.

But counties including Ceredigion, Powys, Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd are not subject to tighter restrictions.

People in those areas are worried about an "influx" of tourists.

Pop singer and TV personality Stacey Solomon gushing about her birthday trip to Rhayader would in normal times be a cause for celebration among locals.

She wrote on Instagram: "Joe Joe how did you even find this place? I love you to the moon and back. What a special, special day," and shared several photos on her story.

And travel expert Simon Calder, speaking on ITV's This Morning, named Gwynedd - via Machynlleth, Aberystwyth and other seaside towns - a great idea for a holiday.

He told the programme: "My absolute top tip, you could stop off in the lovely town of Machynlleth where you've got some great outdoor attractions such as the Centre for Alternative Technology which I just love, and of course you can go to Aberystwyth and all the resorts, Barmouth and Harlech all the way round to lovely Pwllheli.

"So, Wales is easy."

image captionMuch of Wales is subject to local lockdowns, with travel in and out of those counties or towns banned

In Wales, people living in areas subject to tighter restrictions cannot leave those counties, but people in hotspot areas in England are still allowed to leave for holidays.

First Minister Mark Drakeford wrote to Boris Johnson asking him to impose the same rule in England which exists in Wales, but did not receive a reply and was considering taking action to protect those areas.

However the tourism industry is concerned about the impact on businesses, and said there was no evidence visitors were bringing the virus to Welsh communities.

"Machynlleth has always been a very welcoming place for visitors," Powys county councillor Mike Williams said.

"There is the superb countryside, very successful market and diversity of shops - but at this very difficult time with Covid-19, some concerns have been mentioned to me."

Mr Williams said people in Machynlleth and the Dyfi Valley had exercised "common sense" during the course of the pandemic, meaning the virus had been largely kept at bay with Powys recording 401.7 cases per 100,000 of the population - compared with 1,692.5 in Merthyr Tydfil and 1,468.1 in Rhondda Cynon Taf where local lockdowns are in place.

"People have been excellent in following every legal requirement and guidance but more importantly in exercising common sense, and that's why we have kept this pandemic largely away from the area," he said.

"We don't necessarily see such common sense from other areas in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom so whilst we welcome visitors, at the same time we do not want a huge influx into the town and surrounding area.

"Businesses clearly welcome trade, but I would urge everyone who comes into Machynlleth and the Dyfi Valley that they respect the way we have been taking due precautions and use common sense."

Mr Williams said it was frustrating the endorsements these parts of Wales were now receiving had not happened in non-pandemic times instead.

"It's a pity, it would have been wonderful if such encouragement for people to visit Machynlleth had been on primetime television before this pandemic, during the excellent summers we have had," he said.

Jim Jones, of North Wales Tourism, said businesses had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to make their premises safe and "anxiety is huge" in the tourism industry.

"There's no evidence showing us visitors coming to north Wales have brought any infection with them whatsoever," he said.

"I understand the fear from some communities but... businesses have lost overnight thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of bookings, those businesses are part and parcel of those communities, it's imperative we help them as much as we can.

"Businesses have spent time, effort and money making their premises safe, yet they're bearing the brunt at this moment in time".

Social media users took to Twitter to express their frustrations with Mr Calder's comments, with one writing: "So fed up with Cymru being treated like a playground for English tourists."

Another said: "Anyone who recommends people from high number areas travel to low case areas is wholly irresponsible! Do your due diligence before talking it up on TV."

Some even called for an apology and retraction and ITV has been asked to comment.

Dr Eilir Hughes, a GP in north Wales, highlighted how rules differ in Wales meaning people subject to local lockdowns here are not able to visit these places themselves.

"Shame that most people living in Wales aren't allowed to visit these lovely places- might be a good reason for this though. Just a thought..." he wrote on Twitter

In an interview with BBC Wales, Dr Hughes added these differences in strategy can cause conflict.

image copyrightIan Capper / Geograph
image captionAberystwyth was also named on ITV's This Morning as one of Wales' "easy" destinations

"People ask very reasonable questions about promoting the movement of people when it's been made quite clear to them that it should be avoided unless essential - and holiday isn't considered as essential.

"People need to be treated with compassion and sensitively - there's a lot of scared people out there, fearful and very understandable why given all the messages that has been driven down to them over the last few months.

"So their feelings need to be addressed and a solution found for this tug of war of trying to protect the tourism industry and taking proper public health measures such as avoiding mixing of different populations so that outbreaks are kept and contained in pockets.

"They are not compatible and the politicians are yet to accept this and provide the necessary support for the tourism industry."

Preventing Covid's spread 'should come first'

Dr Hughes added unemployment and loss of business caused by the pandemic was in itself harmful to many people - but preventing the spread of disease "should always come first" with businesses instead supported by extra funding.

"Becoming unemployed or being in huge debts are known determinants for poor health so they too need government intervention to avoid harm," he said.

"If they want to eliminate the virus then travel (domestic and international) should really be clamped down. But if it's just to protect the NHS then you can see how travel can still be allowed.

"But is the NHS in places such as mid Wales up to the challenge?"

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: "Some parts of Wales are under local restrictions. Travel in and out of these areas is limited to essential travel only - unfortunately, this would not include travelling for a holiday.

"While there are currently no legal restrictions on people travelling to parts of Wales which are not under local restrictions, we are considering what we could do to stop the spread of the virus to low prevalence areas.

"In the meantime, we are asking people to think very carefully about making journeys."

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