Thousands of sunseekers arriving in British resorts this weekend at the start of one of the busiest fortnights of the summer will be lone parents with their children. Once stigmatised by society, shunned by landladies, and ignored in hotel discount schemes, single parents have become a major economic power in traditional British resorts such as Blackpool, Skegness and Rhyl.
More than a dozen companies are offering cut-price deals to single-parent families, and one specialist organisation has arranged nearly 4,000 summer holidays for them. Many hotels and guesthouses are offering family discounts to single parents for the first time.
There are now an estimated 1.5 million lone parents in the UK. About 500,000 are single mothers, more than 400,000 are divorced mothers, and another 120,000 are lone fathers. Others are widows or widowers, or "access" parents who are separated from their partner but like to take their children on holiday.
Latest estimates are that 13 per cent of English holiday trips are made by what the British Tourist Authority calls one-person parties of all kinds, which is equivalent to 9.5 million stays of one night or more.
That sort of volume is big business for a domestic industry that has been suffering from cheap foreign competition and with the effects of unemployment in Britain.
Professor Terry Marsden, professor of regional planning at the University of Wales, Cardiff, believes that what is happening in resorts reflects changes in society: "We must face up to the fact that the nuclear family is less and less prevalent."
In seaside shows, where the cut-and-thrust of a discourse has assumed a rigid family structure, mother-in-law jokes may be on the wane, but other factors will have to change at our resorts if the increasing numbers of lone parents are not to be marginalised.
The effect of the growing single-parent holiday market will be more far-reaching than just an end to sexist jokes. The services that single parents need are quite different from those required by conventional two-parent families.
Professor Marsden said: "The majority of lone parents are women, but how do resorts cater for them? Lone parents want daytime childminding services and supervised recreation rather than the traditional fishing- boat trips from the end of the pier.
"Nuclear families are able to have a division of labour, but single parents do not, and resorts will have to provide help for them."
Blackpool - where a guesthouse room can cost just pounds 10 a night - is one of the resorts that attracts lone parents. Jane Seddon, its assistant director of tourism, said: "A lot of the hotels now offer special rates for one adult with a child.
"Hotels are aware of the growing need to accommodate lone parents and are offering discount schemes. We welcome single parents here."
To help lone parents go on holiday, several specialist groups and companies have been set up. One of the biggest is Doncaster-based Help - short for Holiday Endeavour for Lone Parents - which has arranged 4,000 low- cost holidays in 32 resorts around the UK this summer.
Hop - Holidays for One-Parent families - also arranges holidays, while Splash organises breaks overseas as well as in the UK.
Peter Bolton, treasurer ofHelp, whose cheapest holiday is pounds 80 for six people in a caravan at Exmouth, said: "There's been a huge increase in demand, particularly over the last two years. We find that people feel much more comfortable going on holiday when they know there are other single parents around."
Holiday Care Services, which provides help for people whose circumstances limit access to holidays, produces a detailed guide for lone parents. Its director, David Phillips, said: "Historically, single parents have not travelled because of economic and other reasons. Everyone needs a holiday and demand certainly is increasing. One of the things we are doing is identifying opportunities for people on low incomes."
Lone parent Francesca Morris from East Ham, east London, who was about to start a seaside holiday with her two children, says that, despite the large increase in single parents going on holiday, changes are still needed.
She said: "People are wary and one of the problems is that the Government and official bodies have not made it easy for us by what they have said about lone parents and about our children being problem children. That is not the case; all we want to do is to take our children on holiday like other families."
t A booklet, "Holidays for one- parent families", is available free from the National Council for One-Parent Families, 255 Kentish Town Road, London NW5 2LX.