In birthplace of the beach holiday, where are the tourists?

Resilience Europe

In birthplace of the beach holiday, where are the tourists?

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Despite being the original spots for beach getaways, England’s seaside towns can’t compete with today’s cheap foreign tour packages. That is spurring them to rethink their approach to tourism.

Though they enjoyed a brief renaissance during the pandemic when travel abroad was limited and viewed as risky, towns like Worthing are not seeing the crowds they used to. And so, in order to thrive, they are thinking harder about how to offer more than sandcastles. That may depend at least in part on another pandemic side effect: Remote office work and hybrid working hours make an hour-plus train commute to London, like that from Worthing, less burdensome.

“Rather than still trying to go down the route of being a beach-based holiday,” says Anya Chapman, a professor of tourism management at Bournemouth University, “the resorts are having to adapt.”

“People just had to get out of the city”

Britain more or less invented the beach holiday, starting in the late 18th century when sea bathing was touted by royalty as a cure-all. In time, trains would bring workers from industrial cities in search of sea breezes to dozens of purpose-built resort towns, such as Scarborough in the northeast. When its 365-room Grand Hotel opened in 1867, it was the largest hotel in Europe. Towns competed to build the longest piers and widest promenades. Funfairs, theaters, and game arcades jostled for attention.

But the availability of cheap package tours starting in the 1970s hollowed out domestic seaside resorts, which proved unable to compete with foreign destinations for sunshine. Hotel stays and visitor spending slumped. Blackpool, a resort in the northwest that once attracted 17 million visitors a year from cities like Liverpool and Manchester, saw arrivals slump to 11 million by 1999. Blackpool and other similar towns became bywords for deprivation and despair. In 2016, coastal communities were among the biggest backers of Brexit and a break with Europe.

Then came a pandemic that shut down international borders and forced people to stay home. Between lockdowns and with foreign travel largely unavailable, Britons flocked to domestic destinations during public holidays, including seaside towns they had overlooked before. “COVID was a catalyst,” says Kenny Dutt, a chef and restaurant owner. “People just had to get out of the city.”

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The “staycation” summer of 2021 was the high-water mark for media hype in the United Kingdom about the rebirth of domestic holidays for a generation reared on foreign travel. But even then, the numbers didn’t add up, says Professor Chapman. Domestic tourist spending actually declined overall during the pandemic, since some people were unwilling or unable to travel, and those who did often avoided hotels and restaurants for fear of exposure to COVID-19. 

Now that the world has opened up, British travelers are back on the beaches of Italy and Spain, and English seaside resorts are mostly back where they started before the pandemic.

Except, that is, for the arrival of newcomers. Worthing has seen an influx of homeowners from London – known as DFLs, short for people who are “down from London” – drawn by affordable property and outdoor lifestyles. Recruitment website Indeed ranked Worthing in 2022 as the U.K.’s top “Zoom town” based on growth in job listings with remote or hybrid options.

This demographic shift in a town that in 2016 had one of the country’s oldest populations – England’s coastal resorts have long been popular with retirees – has had a political resonance: The town council is now run by the Labour Party after nearly two decades of Conservative Party control.

Rosie Sanders, a teacher, moved down from London before the pandemic. She loves to walk on the beach, even in winter, and says the town is becoming more vibrant as more young families arrive, mostly DFLs like her. “I think with the cost of living at the moment, when the weather’s good, this place does well,” she says.

Fewer tourists, more commuters

For tourists, Worthing offers a mix of cultural walking tours, side trips to the South Downs national park, and arts and crafts. Most visitors are day-trippers or weekend holiday-makers. Many still come to walk the coastal promenade, dip in the sea, eat ice cream, and soak up the kitsch of an English seaside town: rock candy, joke postcards, silly hats.

“It’s got a lot to shout about,” says Mr. Dutt, who opened his first restaurant here after winning Britain’s “Masterchef” in 2018 and is a booster of his adopted hometown. “Seaside towns have been massively undervalued [and] forgotten about.”

Behind the pastel beachfront blocks are pockets of deep poverty, which Worthing has in common with resorts dotted up and down England’s coastline. Seaside towns tend to have lower employment rates, slower economic growth, and populations in worse health with lower life expectancy than the national average, according to government data. Worthing, a town of 110,000, isn’t at the bottom of the list, but it shares some of the same issues.

Matthew Potter runs a food bank that opens three days a week, serving around 150 families. It began as a mutual aid group at the start of the pandemic. “It was meant to be short term, just to get through the first few months,” he says. Now he wants to find premises so that more donated food can be stored and distributed to those who need it.

He says that 40% of recipients are working full time yet are struggling to keep up with the cost of living. “Just the sheer thing of not being able to feed your children is traumatic,” he says. That house prices are rising as DFLs discover Worthing is adding to the squeeze, as renters on low incomes fear being priced out, says Mr. Potter. “The problem here is low wages.”

At the end of the pier is Perch, an elegant restaurant that opened in April 2022 after a $2 million refurbishment of a former disco. From its curved windows, the sea glistens along a coastline of headlands and bays. A row of wind turbines turns on the horizon.

Owner Alex Coombes is among the newcomers to Worthing, though he moved from Hove, another coastal town. When he opened Perch last year after pandemic delays and cost overruns, he had expected to close over winter and take a skiing vacation. But demand was so strong that he stayed open most days. “We were full every weekend,” he says.

Like most seafront businesses, he still depends on visitors coming to spend money, in addition to those who live nearby, and he knows that Worthing isn’t Mallorca. “This is a good weekend trip. A holiday is when you go to an airport – that’s our perception of a holiday,” he says.

Economic head winds

Professor Chapman says now that vacationers can jet off to warmer climes, English resorts need to repackage their Victorian heritage. “The thing the U.K. resorts have, and is often neglected and overlooked, is the heritage,” she says. “This was the first place in the world for mass tourism.”

Still, it takes investment to revive towns, and that is in short supply in the U.K., which is struggling with high inflation and lackluster growth. A dedicated fund for coastal revival launched in 2015 has been replaced by a national leveling-up program for all deprived areas. For every Worthing that has pockets of gentrification, there are others with nothing much to dangle for tourists.

And in Worthing, the economic head winds are blowing. Mr. Dutt closed his second restaurant in April, which he had opened in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Mr. Coombes says he’s bracing for September when his customers start feeling the pinch from higher U.K. mortgage rates.

At the seaside, seasons matter. “When the sun stops shining,” he warns, “we’ll see the slowdown.”


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