A chill wind blows down the not-so-Golden Mile

Now it's cheaper to go to Benidorm, can Blackpool survive?
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The Independent Online
LIKE ANY out-of-season resort, Blackpool in winter feels both abandoned and braced for action, like a deserted theatre or a ship out of water. Workmen tighten bolts on the rides, test the lift in the great rust-coloured tower, or chip lettering off the signs along the front. The cables that power the illuminations hang in mid-repair from lamp-posts; empty trams nose along the rails like toys; and painters touch up the smiles of sharks or the bulging eyes of the ghouls that haunt the side- shows along the Golden Mile.

The big hotels are empty; the boarding houses in the back streets are shut. The Pleasure Beach itself vibrates to the sound of drilling, as builders wrap plaster Viking figurines and fake-rock cladding around the huge new pounds 15m Project 2000 ride ("Adventure-eering for the Millennium"), which will open next spring. As the brackish sea slops out of the bay, the beach stands wide and empty: a single man walking his dog, or a stray party of schoolchildren from Yorkshire can whoop down the steps and have the whole muddy expanse to themselves. The tourist information hut on the front is still full of last year's leaflets, and most of the slot- machine arcades are closed, their floors littered with broken machines and empty burger cartons.

Love it or hate it, Blackpool is by far the most popular tourist destination in Britain, and one of the most important purveyors of cheap thrills in the world. Its pleasures (donkey rides, fish and chips, amusement arcades, fun-fairs, the sludgy Irish sea, cruddy weather) might seem antiquated, but the mixture continues to attract a fabulous number of visitors.

Each summer, 15 million holiday-makers and day-trippers dodge the trams and swarm along the spacious front beneath the Tower. The Pleasure Beach alone, with its zooming roller-coasters and water flumes, attracted seven million people last year, making it the second biggest tourist trap in Europe (after Disneyland Paris).

Blackpool, a cold and dingy town with a population of only 150,000, offers 120,000 holiday beds in its row-upon-row of hotels and guest houses. Each summer, this dizzy influx of visitors guzzles its way through a million ice creams, 500,000 candy flosses and nearly 50 miles of hot dogs.

Blackpool is used to the sarcasm of those with more expensive tastes. But in recent times its reputation has taken some worrying knocks. Its once-proud football club, the home of Sir Stanley Matthews, languishes in the lower leagues under the ownership of a man (Owen Oyston) in prison for rape. Where once it attracted top-notch stars (Frank Sinatra, Jayne Mansfield), it now pulls in only B-list TV-ers, or Abba and Queen tribute bands. And its image as a prestige political forum took a low blow last autumn when the Labour Party (following chaotic scenes when hundreds of delegates were stranded on trains) declared that its next three get-togethers would be held down south.

Last week another warning shot splashed across its bows: the tour operator Sunworld published a survey pointing out that Benidorm was now a noticeably cheaper option. Two weeks in a three-star hotel in Blackpool would cost pounds 574; the same in Spain, only pounds 497. Since no one goes to Blackpool for the tropical-paradise climate, this was bad news indeed.

There are faltering signs that the town is attempting to spruce up its image. An "anti-droppings officer" has been appointed to police the donkeys on the beach. And passengers arriving by train (five hours after leaving London, in my experience) immediately bump into a police notice urging them not to urinate in public. It is a brisk comment on the kind of tourist the town has historically been determined to attract (oh we do like to pee beside the seaside) and would be foolish to alienate. Blackpool's image as a saucy pleasurama is also scrupulously maintained. Tattered signs on closed bars offer "American-style table dancing", while out-of- date posters advertise an Australian comedian ("I couldn't believe the size of his didgeridoo").

Behind the lollipops, baseball caps and water pistols in the gift shops stand postcards of tanned buttocks ("I promised to send you something cheeky"), racks of comedy dildoes, even an "Inflatable Bonking Sheep".

The Labour Party conference is estimated to be worth pounds 5m to Blackpool, so its disappearance is of some commercial significance. But it is hardly the only show in town. Last week, the Winter Gardens played host to the 23rd Blackpool Chess Conference and the National Union of Students. This weekend Blackpool welcomes the Federation of Small Businesses and the International Hairdressing Championships. Coming up there's the World Aerobic Experience, the Preston and Blackpool Cat Club Championship, the Burma Star Association weekend, the World Matchplay Darts, various dance galas, the UK Pool Championships, the Disabled Persons Sea Angling Festival, and a Cyril the Squirrel Sports Day.

These might not seem the obvious way to compete with Mediterranean sunshine. But as the world moves up market, Blackpool continues to pull off a remarkable conjuring trick, selling seaside holidays to both young and old without sea or sunshine. For philistines in search of water sports,the town thoughtfully provides an indoor beach, heated to 84 degrees; otherwise it is a vulgar inland fun-fair on the coast, offering the Coronation Street Experience, ice-dance spectaculars, a zoo, a boating lake, and all those shrieking rides.

In a way it is already a museum: a stage set for the Blackpool Experience.Visitors are rewarded with a living and breathing glimpse of olden days with only a nod to modern times: there's a PlayStation ride, and the chips sometimes come with lasagne. But it remains fundamentally a historic spectacle, all brick and iron and gilded ceilings. In winter, especially, if you close your eyes for a second, you can recapture the time when men wore ties on the beach and when stopping work was the only holiday anyone needed - or could afford.

This is well worth preserving. Blackpool was the first resort to open its arms to the working class, and the fact that it does not resemble Monte Carlo is neither here nor there. The keenest risk, perhaps, is internal. Blackpool Inc might be thriving, but the town itself is not.

Unemployment is high even by Lancashire standards: 18 per cent of the population is on income support. Tourism certainly brings in cash, but it is hard-earned, and floods out again as swiftly as the tide. No wonder New Labour's decision to take up residence in Bournemouth and Brighton is seen locally as treacherous. Perhaps they should simply have concentrated on making the trains run on time.