Vacationers Take Holidays in Their Own Backyards

Juliet Murrell has packed her suitcase. but she's not going anywhere. The 28-year-old interior designer is vacationing at home this year. Murrell, who usually travels to southern France and beyond, is embarking on a "staycation," taking a fortnight off work to swim, cycle and explore areas of her own city, East London, a former industrial zone that has a gritty charm but is hardly the Côte d'Azur. "You have to wake up in the morning with the spirit of adventure," she says. "It's about mentally reviving yourself and your environment." As the pound weakens to near parity with the euro, scores of Britons are canceling their trips to the Mediterranean or theFrench Riviera and braving the notoriously unpredictable weather at home. Murrell's stuffed suitcase may sound like a gimmick, but it's part of her strategy. "I don't want to slip into everyday habits," she says. "You have to become a tourist in your own city, a person who walks the streets to experience them, not just to get from point A to point B. It's about puncturing the banal routines of everyday life."

The world's most prolific and profligate travelers—Americans, Japanese and Europeans—are among those worst hit by the global recession, and many are amending their holiday itineraries in response. "Either people are losing jobs or people are not sure about their disposable incomes," says Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). "[In times like these] people tend to travel less far, less long and less expensively. They are staying home." A recent World Travel Monitor survey conducted in 58 countries shows that the Chinese have bolstered Asia's travel sector by 10 percent in the past year by traveling close to home. In Europe, 40 percent of people are changing their holiday plans in response to the economic crisis. Visit Britain, the government-funded tourism body, anticipates that hard financial times could induce as many as 5 million more Brits to stay on home turf in 2009—and even more in 2010. "It's a global phenomenon," says Dimitrios Diamantis, a lecturer in tourism studies at Sheffield Hallam University. "There have been instances of downturn—[after] September 11, SARS and acts of terrorism in resorts like Bali and Luxor—but nothing on this scale."

Tourism-dependent countries are weighing in with energetic publicity campaigns to persuade their citizens to holiday at home, triggering a new kind of trade war. Visit Britain recently launched a multimillion-pound campaign to encourage Brits to stay put this year, and there are many copycats. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently introduced a "No Leave, No Life" campaign that offers Australians a $900 tax break to use their annual leave for a local holiday. And Dublin has spent millions encouraging the Irish to forgo their usual foreign holidays in favor of local trips to Connemara and other scenic spots.

Government incentives certainly sweeten the allure of short journeys. Vacationers everywhere are eschewing long-haul excursions for cheaper local alternatives, such as a holiday spent puttering in the garden, taking a series of day trips or exploring a nearby coast. "Foreigners often see [our assets] more than we do," says Visit Britain chairman Christopher Rodriguez. "My own hypothesis is that if you present the average Londoner with a map, they'll find it easier to find Ibiza than the Lake District." Charlotte Smith, a musician, pitched a tent in her local nature reserve in Cambridge, England. "We took a guitar and some river trout to barbecue and sang Jeff Buckley songs by the water as the sun went down," she says. " In the morning we packed up camp and cycled 10 minutes up the road to our house." Others are bringing the beach to their backyards. One businessman dumped two tons of white sand in his yard for his grandchildren. "Sand is one of the relaxing things about a holiday," he says. " And if we can't afford to go away, I thought, why not bring it to the back garden?"

To be sure, the staycation can be used to make a political statement. With tourist economies beginning to feel the pinch, pressure is mounting on locals to pump tourist dollars into their home countries rather than jet abroad. In March, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, provoked condemnation from the French public after they flew to Mexico for a two-day break—even though the Elysée Palace insisted they were the guests of the Mexican president. "The least a leader can do is to assume a form of solidarity with the population," said Marielle de Sarnez, the vice president of the centrist MoDem party. "Why can't he just take a normal break?" As early as last summer, with the storm clouds of recession gathering, leading British politicians tried to "out-English" each other with their summer itineraries. Brown chose a historic Georgian house in the quaint southeastern-coast resort of Southwold; Cameron was photographed on a quintessentially English Cornwall beach, huddling for warmth with his wife inches from an iron-gray sea.

In the recessionary climate, civic authorities are expanding their urban projects to accommodate locals on home holiday. In Reading, Pennsylvania, where the mayor has introduced the slogan "Become a tourist in your hometown!" locals have been taking hot-air-balloon trips. In Europe's big cities, mayors are thinking of creative ways to entertain the influx of locals. Man-made beach projects in Berlin, Rome and Paris have added festivals, literary events and dance evenings in an attempt to bring the vacation spirit to tired, stressed-out workers. Come July, the banks of the Seine will become car-free zones sprouting deck chairs and outdoor concerts.

Staycations don't have to be budget affairs to be cost-effective. Without the expense of travel—just getting there typically accounts for 50 percent of holiday costs—vacationers often have more money for splurges. Indeed, some families are escaping the economic gloom by checking into their neighborhood's top hotels. The Maybourne group in London—which owns the superexpensive Berkeley, Claridge's and Connaught hotels—estimates that during the Easter period 25 percent of its U.K. visitors came from within London. In Brazil, the trend is even more pronounced: top hotels report a surge in locals checking in for short breaks. "During this year's Carnaval we had more Brazilians staying with us than tourists," says Marianna Galaxe, who works in the Sheraton hotel in Rio. "With the dollar so high our best option is to stay around here. But it's not like you have to go far to find beautiful beaches."

In some cases, staycations can engender a recondite patriotism. Swiss photographer Roderick Aichinger recently took his first holiday on home turf and was amazed by what his own country could offer. "I was surprised how relatively low-budget I could get around," he says. "I stayed two nights at the bottom of a glacier in Pontresina. The view in the morning was visual brain gymnastics."

The globe-trotting Scandinavians are also rediscovering local haunts. "Swedes love to travel," says Ann-Charlotte Jönsson, who works in Stockholm's tourist bureau. "But for the time being, people are cutting back and using what we have right here." She says the residents of industrial towns dependent on big Volvo and Saab factories have been especially hard hit, and many of them plan to head this summer to a cluster of local islets with long daylight hours and wild nudist beaches. "[Swedes] have something called 'all man's right'," she explains. "You can stay on someone else's land and pick bluebells and mushrooms. As long as you don't disturb the landowners, you can stay in a camper anywhere."

Some experts fear that governments are encouraging the staycation as a form of protectionism. Historically, for example, the French have bought home-built Citroëns and vacationed domestically—around 65 percent of the nation's tourism is domestic-related—propping up their economy in the process. If enough other tourists opt for their own sofas over the sun lounge, could the global economy ultimately suffer? Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, says that if, for instance, millions of Americans stay home this holiday season, "they will have an effect on the domestic economy—but it will actually reduce the international stimulus. If [the U.S. economy] grew inwards rather than outwards, we'd end up with the global economy being adversely affected."

The WTTC's Baumgarten isn't worried. He's confident that the international tourism sector will bounce back quickly. "All our surveys show that travel is still very high on the agenda," he says. "The modern world is one that creates a lot of stress. Traveling for pleasure is becoming a way of life—in some places it's becoming a right."

Meanwhile, savvy travelers like Murrell are learning to enjoy vacation time without palm trees and balmy evenings. "Admittedly, it's hard to get in the holiday swing without the buzz you get from a change of scene and hot weather," she says. "But I'm finding stimulus in the everyday. Even though I live here, East London is an exciting, curious place to explore. It's a good trick to try and see it from a tourist's view." While the pundits pore over the machinations of the world travel economy, the public is learning to love the simple pleasures of a holiday: fun, food, family and seeing the world—even a familiar part of it—through new eyes.