The Isle of Wight – England’s largest island, cast adrift from the South Coast near Portsmouth – is home to an array of fabulous beaches, fascinating dinosaur-fossil finds and the hulking chalk rocks of the Needles. The Isle of Wight reopened to travellers on 4 July, who usually arrive by Wightlink ferry. We caught up with Keith Greenfield, CEO of Wightlink, to find out more about the island’s experience of coronavirus, and the company’s plans going forwards.
If you’re planning a trip to the island later this year, look out for our new Pocket Rough Guide to the to the Isle of Wight, publishing on 19 October 2020.
Q: The Isle of Wight reopened for tourism on 4 July. Journeys to the island usually start with a Wightlink ferry. How is Wightlink balancing the increased demand for staycations with Covid-compliant protocols?
A: Wightlink never stopped sailing during the pandemic. We carried essential supplies across the Solent and helped key workers to commute on our car ferries between Portsmouth and the Island port of Fishbourne.
When leisure travel was permitted again in July, increased numbers of people wanted to travel with us, so we brought more ferries into service on all our three routes.
Right from the word go, we made sure all our vessels and ports complied with the government’s regulations to combat the spread of coronavirus. Safety is always my first priority.
Wightlink’s ships and FastCat catamarans are spacious. There’s plenty of room in the lounges to allow social distancing and, of course, there’s lots of fresh air on the outside decks. We’ve brought in new cleaning routines and installed hand sanitizers. We have also reduced the capacity of our ships to give people more room to move around.
We’re delighted that many people are choosing to sail to the Isle of Wight with us this summer but, whatever happens, their safety comes first.
Q: How have holidays to the Isle of Wight been influenced by Covid more generally? What changes can tourists expect from attractions, hotels and restaurants, for example?
A: The Isle of Wight is open for business and welcomes holidaymakers. You’ll find all the attractions are open and there’s a wide range of places to stay including hotels, self-catering accommodation, holiday parks and camping sites. We all want to protect the health of visitors and local people and have made our premises Covid-secure.
There are a few differences this year. You may have to book a time slot to visit some attractions, and there could be a special route you’ll have to follow as you go around. In restaurants and cafés, you might have to scan a menu with a smartphone. Many companies would like you to pay by contactless cards or mobile devices and social distancing remains important as well. Face coverings must be worn on public transport and in enclosed spaces such as shops.
Wightlink, along with many of the Island’s businesses, has been awarded VisitEngland’s “We’re Good to Go” mark recognizing everything we’ve done to keep people safe.
The Island is the perfect place for people who love the outdoor life. Naturally, there are wonderful beaches, and it’s also ideal for walking, cycling and generally exploring and connecting with nature.
Q: As we see more popular abroad destinations “close” again – for instance, France and Spain – what does that mean for the future of staycations? How will this impact customer demand, and what does it mean for Wightlink?
A:You’re right, many people might not want to travel abroad right now, but they do want to have a fantastic holiday. The Isle of Wight is an excellent destination and many of the hotels and attractions will be staying open later in the season and opening up earlier in 2021. We believe autumn and spring are the best times to enjoy the Island – when it’s a little less busy.
Right now, day trips are very popular; many people want to come here for short breaks and we have noticed more families are booking longer holidays as well. Advance bookings for next year are also looking healthy, which suggests that there may not be a mass return to overseas travel anytime soon.
Q: With Wightlink at the forefront of restarting domestic tourism to the island, what initiatives are you introducing to encourage business?
A: Our marketing team is working hard to let potential customers know what the Isle of Wight has to offer and how easy it is to get here, thanks to good road and rail connections. We are part of VisitWight, the Island’s tourism organization which has been advertising widely to highlight its many attractions.
In particular, we are encouraging people to take day trips to Ryde, only 22 minutes from Portsmouth by our FastCat catamarans. The resort has one of the best beaches in the country and we want to support its shops, cafés and restaurants.
Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the Isle of Wight and October half term can be very busy, especially if the weather is kind. We offer our “kids go free” discounts in the school holidays so families can make the most of the time.
Q: What does the future hold for the ferry industry and Wightlink?
A: Unless you’ve got your own yacht, you’ll be arriving on the Isle of Wight by ship. A sea voyage is a marvellous way to start your holiday and cross-Solent ferries will be around for a long time to come.
Wightlink offers three different routes. Foot passengers speed across by FastCat from Portsmouth Harbour train station to historic Ryde Pier, which is more than 200 years old! Drivers can take their vehicles on either our frequent Portsmouth–Fishbourne or Lymington–Yarmouth sailings.
Overcoming Covid is a marathon and not a sprint. Like all transport operators, we have worked hard to make our services as safe as possible and will continue to do so.
Q: Do you think we can take any positives forwards from Covid-19? What are your renewed hopes for the future?
A:Covid has been devastating for some families and businesses, which we shouldn’t forget, but there are some positives.
The biggest one, for me, is that people have been rediscovering what a wonderful place the Isle of Wight is for a holiday, especially those that love the outdoors and nature. Many younger adults, who have grown up in an age of cheap air travel, are discovering the Island for the first time and I hope they will make many more visits in the future. Wightlink looks forward to welcoming them back to our beautiful Island all year round.
Top image: Freshwater Bay - Isle Of Wight © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock
Helen worked as a Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and Insight Guides, based in the London office. Among her favourite projects to work on are inspirational guides like