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Party on the pier for tourism week

Threatened seaside pleasure palaces will be the focus of festivals around the country

Gleaming white in the winter sun, the pier at Clacton-on-Sea bears a neon sign welcoming visitors in four languages, and four fraying Union flags atop its domes and turrets.

Great British piers like this one – built in 1871 – are enjoying a revival, according to VisitBritain, which is marking the start of tourism week with parties around the nation's piers.

Some 110 of the coastal pleasure palaces were built, mostly during Victorian times, the first being Ryde pier on the Isle of Wight in 1813. Today, 55 of them still stand, in various states of repair. Tastes have evolved, but the basic ingredients remain: funfairs, amusements and sticky food treats.

They had their heyday in the late 1880s, when steam trains made the coastline accessible to day-trippers keen to escape cities. They promenaded along the coast, taking the face-slappingly bracing sea air, which the Victorians thought therapeutic. While foreign travel was a jet-set luxury, the piers thrived. Then, with cheap charter flights in the 1960s, pallid Britons headed for the Costa del Sol.

The recession has helped to revive the seaside's fortunes, as people have holidayed at home. And the charm of a man-made promontory jutting over the surf remains undiminished. "It's a nice day, so we thought we'd come and mooch about on the pier," says Georgina Weller, from nearby Witham. "It's not too big or noisy. It's unique, a part of British holiday history."

Piers at Hastings and Weston-super-Mare were razed by fire in 2009, prompting commentators to question whether people care about these ageing insurance liabilities. The answer is: we do care, just not enough to fork out cash to keep them going.

"There has been an increase in footfall, but a reluctance to spend," says Billy Ball, 30, who bought Clacton pier with his brother in 2009. Local, and from a line of travelling show people, they have plans for the pier: renovations are under way and a new bowling alley, a crazy golf course and a roller-coaster ride are imminent.

But the biggest cost – eating up a third of profits – is maintaining the pier's substructure, the underbelly. After 50-odd years of neglect, Mr Ball thinks that tourism alone is not enough to sustain Britain's piers. "Without help," he says, "we are going to be losing them."