‘The invasion of ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’, screamed the headline on the Mail Online above a report of how Salcombe’s mayor had blasted ‘disrespectful tourists for failing to socially distance’.
As the local vicar, I find myself hearing the consternation from all sides: tourists who don’t recognise themselves as ‘invaders’; shopkeepers and pub owners who rely on tourists for their livelihoods; and locals who are welcoming (or not) these people arriving for their summer holidays.
This week’s heatwave has only heightened tensions and added to the influx of people arriving here. Roads are gridlocked, beaches packed and narrow streets filled with holidaymakers. The manager of the local tourist information board sums up the struggle to find spare accommodation: ‘It’s like Bethlehem; no room in the Inn.’ This is, of course, good news for struggling businesses which have had their summers saved from financial ruin. But nevertheless, this also confirms to some anxious residents and others an impending Covid-19 spike might be on its way.
But for all the furore, many visitors in Salcombe are being respectful. Already some modest restrictions are being imposed to regulate the initial binge drinking that saw alcohol fly off the shelves. I also heard a few accounts of second home owning parents now acutely regretting packing off their offspring here unsupervised either because of colossal house cleaning bills or irked neighbours.
Of course, there have always been stresses and tensions in the tourism industry and Salcombe has a reputation for attracting a pushy flashy faction used to having their needs instantly gratified. ‘My family and I have come here to get away from the pandemic’, won the best non sequitur of the week from one plummy-voiced man maddened at the outrageous idea that they were not exempt from social distancing rules. Another, which I also overheard, came as a retort to a shopkeeper’s polite request to not enter barefoot, ‘But I always keep my sandals on the yacht!’ The truth is that it would be a much duller place without them.
Yet Salcombe is not as wealthy as appearances might suggest. By nine o’clock this morning, there was already a small queue waiting to collect from our new Co-op sponsored food share in the church porch. An hour later at the high altar reciting the ‘Our Father’ I catch sight of one soul quietly rummaging through the bread baskets. The line ‘Give us this day our daily bread bread’ sticks in my throat. Without the Covid-tide ‘staycation’ boom, this queue would undoubtedly be substantially longer. The popular image of Salcombe as a millionaire’s paradise is a caricature. In reality, a large chunk of the local population are on low incomes, or are running precarious businesses that rely for almost all of their income on the summer trade.
A colleague whose wife volunteers in a neighbouring town’s food bank confirms what happens without the financial injection provided by a booming tourist trade. She says that the weekly demand for food parcels has flipped from 60 to 400 in the past few months. It is all too easy to forget what destitution, job loss, and bankruptcy accompanied by a house repossession looks like. Do we want a repeat of the grim economic carnage of what happened in traditional Cornish communities or in the north east of Scotland when the bottom fell out of the fishing industry?
A long-term answer to some of our issues, particularly if the staycation is to become the new norm, is to improve communication between locals and visitors. Fifty or sixty years ago, those working in hotels, hostels and B&Bs would quickly have admonished badly-behaved visitors. Now most tourists here use second homes or self-accommodation rentals, meaning there is less interaction with the community and a higher chance of tensions running high as a result.
A couple of years back at the annual civic service I employed my love for blockbuster disaster movies to argue half jokingly for Salcombe as a safe harbour from global catastrophe. Our regular visitors often comment that our strong community is as equally attractive as the stunning backdrop. And, yes, it’s true that some visitors are behaving badly, but most aren’t and are just grateful for a chance to escape for some time out after this difficult year.