Boom and bust: a tale of two resorts: Blackpool and Morecambe may be neighbours, but economically they have drifted miles apart

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The Independent Online
BLACKPOOL and Morecambe lie back to back on the north-west coast of England. Both are resorts, and you get to both on the M6, but that is about all they have in common these days. For, while Blackpool has made good since tourism was shattered in the early 1970s by the introduction of cheap package holidays, Morecambe has continued to suffer.

Between 1970 and 1987, long holidays taken abroad increased from just over 5 million to 20 million; the number spent in Britain fell by a quarter. Increasingly it seemed that the traditional factory fortnight by the sea, complete with kiss-me-quick hat, was in terminal decline.

But obituaries were premature. After 15 years of growth, the number of foreign holidays taken levelled off in 1987: recent failures of tour operators have highlighted how far they have run out of steam. The British total, meanwhile, has continued to creep up.

Recovery has been arduous and far from ubiquitous and has not, contrary to popular predictions, been boosted by the recession (which might have brought holidaymakers back to Britain).

The successful resorts have invested heavily to bring often inadequate facilities up to scratch and make them weather-proof. They have also adapted to the fundamental change in the nature of the business, seeking stability without the guarantee of Saturday to Saturday bookings throughout the summer. Thus their emphasis is now on short breaks, day trips and the corporate market.

Most important, authorities and business people have accepted that they must have a coherent strategy covering the whole community.

Blackpool, the largest seaside resort in Britain, was among the first to realise this; today its success is legendary. The resort claims to have 17 million visits each year, more than those to Greece and its islands together. It has more holiday beds than Portugal. Last year, tourism generated pounds 445m for the town.

Things were not always so good. In 1972, a report was commissioned which indicated that its visitor profile was ageing in a worrying way; at that stage only 22 per cent of staying visitors were between 15 and 34. The report spurred the town into action, and Blackpool claims to be the only British resort to have successfully reversed this trend: 36 per cent are now in the young age group.

Part of that success is due to the improvement in facilities. In the past 10 years alone, the public and private sector have spent pounds 200m on holiday-related infrastructure. At the same time, Blackpool adapted itself to the short-break market. Now, 57 per cent of visitors stay for three nights or less. The local tourist authority praises the flexibility of guest-houses and their readiness to change the sheets daily instead of weekly.

The sheer scale of tourism in the town helps by uniting the local community to the cause; there are few people in Blackpool whose lives are not directly affected by the industry. This has eased the passage of potentially difficult local authority spending plans, such as footing most of the pounds 1.8m bill for the illuminations. These extend the season for nine weeks beyond the traditional end of summer and generate an estimated pounds 90m in revenue.

Blackpool has many advantages: the scale of the facilities, a reputation as the hedonistic capital of the North, and a local authority that has been single-mindedly committed to the future of tourism. The same cannot be said, or at least until recently, for its neighbour.

Morecambe has one of the most beautiful settings of any resort in Britain which, as one pundit points out, 'makes you wonder how things went so wrong'. Looking across the bay to the hills of the Lake District, it has been described as 'more failed than any comparable resort in the country'.

Many in the town believe its problems have been political. In 1974, as Blackpool was reacting to the bad news about its elderly visitors, Morecambe was put under the jurisdiction of Lancaster city council. Lancaster had its own distracting problems of industrial decline and unemployment.

Since then, visitor spending in Morecambe - adjusted for inflation - has fallen from pounds 43.6m to pounds 6.5m. First Leisure, one of Britain's largest leisure companies, has invested pounds 30m in its Blackpool businesses over the past three years. It pulled out of Morecambe in the late 1970s because 'the town seemed unable to decide which way it wanted to go'.

The derelict pier has been demolished, all the town's cinemas have closed, and there has been a 61 per cent reduction in the resort's holiday accommodation. In some areas, guest houses play reluctant host to homeless families. The situation has degenerated to the point where cosmetic change would be inadequate. Substantial investment is needed. Belatedly, the town is fighting back. In the last round of local elections, 13 councillors were elected as Morecambe Bay independents on the ticket of giving the town priority. A pounds 50m five-year redevelopment programme has been launched.

The scale of the problem is immense. Of that pounds 50m, just pounds 8m has been committed by the public sector, mainly from central grant aid; the restrictions imposed on local authority spending limit their contribution mainly to land.

The balance is sought from private companies and developers. And as the tourist office admits, attracting private sector investment to a rundown seaside resort in the North-west in the middle of a recession will be far from easy.

But there are committed companies, such as Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which has spent pounds 4.6m developing a sister amusement park, Frontierland, in Morecambe. This may not aspire to the records the enormous Blackpool park has chalked up - it claims to be the second largest tourist attraction in Europe after the Vatican - but its owners are convinced of the resort's potential.

The optimism will be justified if the Blackpool trick can be repeated. Barry Morris, Blackpool's director of tourism, said: 'I knew we had succeeded when the entire town council of Torremolinos came over to have a look and learn how we do things. That was when I knew we had beaten Spain.'

And that, after all, is the ultimate achievement.

(Photograph omitted)