“I don’t know if you’re aware, but we’re living through a pandemic right now,” says Joel Robinson with a smile as he introduces his Jack the Ripper tour in London’s East End.
Robinson, a trained actor and history buff who works for the tourist company London With A Local, goes on to explain social distancing best practice to his nine clients.
Although he doesn’t wear them himself, he advises the tourists to wear masks and gloves before they set off through the once-gloomy alleyways of Victorian-era London.
Down darkened side streets and past shiny new buildings, Robinson recounts the tale of the still unidentified serial killer of five women who stalked the streets of Whitechapel in 1888.
London’s tourist guides are resuming their work slowly as lockdown restrictions are eased, and adapting to new health and safety rules to curb the spread of the virus.
Numbers are currently limited but it’s the background of the clients that has changed the most.
Where before Robinson and walking guides like him played mainly to foreign tourists, now customers are mainly British.
Dwindling numbers of overseas clients are largely down to quarantine measures imposed by the British government on foreign visitors.
“We have far more Britons than we had,” said Olivia Calvert, one of Robinson’s colleagues. “It’s a huge shift. They’re expecting something else, something different.”
Among the home-grown tourists traipsing around the Ripper’s old haunts are Anne and Nick Garner, a couple in their fifties from near Manchester, in northwest England.
“We would have been abroad but we decided to come to London,” said Anne Garner after her insight into the bloodthirsty past of the city’s East End.
– Getting creative –
The 90-minute Jack the Ripper tour is one of London’s most popular, alongside the Harry Potter tour and another visiting the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll hotspots of Soho.
“The British already know London’s famous monuments, so they expect something else,” said Calvert.
Antony Robbins is an independent guide affiliated to the Guild of Tourist Guides, the national professional association for Blue Badge Tourist Guides across the country.
Lack of demand has meant he has had to abandon his walks from Westminster to Buckingham Palace.
This week, he led his first “fooding” tour, taking a young woman and her mother to several restaurants and high-end patisseries in the British capital.
“We’re changing the way we work because we have to,” he said. “We need to be more creative.”
Although some guides have been able to go back to work, many tourism professionals — particularly freelancers not linked to major attractions — are finding it hard.
Only six staff at London With A Local have returned to work and the number of weekly guided tours has been cut by half.
And predictions for the coming months don’t make easy reading.
– Loss of income –
The World Travel & Tourism Council said this week that Britain’s economy will lose about £22 billion ($29 billion, 24 billion euros) this year because of the outbreak.
British tourism promotion body VisitBritain also forecast that the number of foreign tourists will plummet by 73 percent in 2020, to 11 million people — a drop largely blamed on grounded aircraft and travel restrictions.
In London, guides in particular are worried about the lack of American visitors, who have a culture of tipping well, but who are also currently subject to quarantine restrictions.
Some 85 percent of tourist spending in the British capital is by foreigners, putting nearly three million jobs in the UK supported by travel and tourism at risk, the WTTC said.
At London With A Local, tours in Spanish have not restarted — unsurprisingly, as arrivals to the UK from Spain have since July been required to self-quarantine.
The numbers don’t lie when Pepe Martinez, an independent guide and blue badge holder, compares this year with last.
“June is one of the biggest months. I did 46 visits last year. This year, I’ve only done eight. Six of those have been online,” he said.