Can anything be done to stop the slow, steady decline of the Great British seaside resorts?

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The Independent Online

They are still selling the hats that say "Kiss Me Quick, Squeeze Me Slowly". The salt air comes from the smell of chips as much as from the sea. And the noise of the wind and waves is drowned by a cacophony of pounding tunes from the seafront arcades.

They are still selling the hats that say "Kiss Me Quick, Squeeze Me Slowly". The salt air comes from the smell of chips as much as from the sea. And the noise of the wind and waves is drowned by a cacophony of pounding tunes from the seafront arcades.

In glorious sunshine Blackpool, in common with the nation's other coastal resorts, revels in the glorious vulgarity that has for a century beenthe Great British Seasideexperience.

Pubs and bars along the promenade blast out "The Stripper" without any evident sense of irony. The Healthy Options bar advertises bacon butties and giant hot dogs (no chips is presumably the concession to dietary balance). The joke shops offer stink bombs, plastic vomit, fake parking tickets and a "Sherlock Holmes patent Fart Finder".

And the town's theatres present Hale and Pace, Danny La Rue and Roy Chubby Brown - "Britain's rudest and crudest".

Not all is as it would have been in the postwar years that were Blackpool's prime. On the edge of the sands are Asian families - some of the women fully veiled and dressed in black right down to their sand-speckled bare feet. The more daring Muslim daughters sport silly seaside hats or wigs of purple tin foil above their saris as they promenade.

But most of the visitors are the descendants of the industrial workers from the northern, Scottish and Ulster towns for whom Blackpool was the acme of holiday aspiration in a previous era. Yet things have changed. Once, the last two weeks in July were known there as Scots Fortnight. Pubs such as the Heart of Scotland and the Crazy Scots Bar overflowed with the denizens of Glasgow whose factories had all been shut down for the same period.

Today, working patterns have changed, and holidays with them. Blackpool and other British resorts are struggling as a result.

Their decline is such that government statisticians have now compared them with depressed former mining areas, and the minister for Tourism, Janet Anderson, launched an initiative yesterday to revitalise five of the nation's most famous resorts - Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, Scarborough, Minehead and Newquay - all of which she intends to visit over the next five days.

Just 20 years ago we spent more than half our holiday money at home. Only 5 million Britons went abroad each year. Today that figure has risen to 27 million and almost two-thirds of our holiday cash is spent away from home. The strength of the pound is only making that worse.

Among the ministerial initiatives - which include seeking EU money to clean-up beaches and lottery grants being directed at seaside resorts - is one to get the English Tourist Council to find out what people require from a British seaside holiday.

What they require is clearly not the beach. The sands in Benidorm, Palma Nova or Ibiza may get packed. But last weekend was hot in Blackpool and the sea was not far out. Yet the sand was largely empty, with only worm-casts and the odd razor clam shells as evidence of life. By the edge of the shimmering silver there was no one in sight, just a few juvenile herring gulls picking their way along the sand ridges left by the last tide.

Up on the prom the scene was heaving with their human counterparts. Perhaps they had been put off by last week's reports that the European Commission has started legal proceedings against Blackpool and 44 other beaches over the state of the bathing water.

But the sand and water appeared cleaner than in many Mediterranean resorts. It seemed evident that Blackpool is failing to compete in ways other than its natural environment.

In part, of course, it is the weather, which is why the Government has just appointed as "tourism tsar" Peter Moore, the man in charge of all those all-weather, undercover leisure centres run by Center Parcs and which the British public seem to love.

But in part it is a failure to get to grips with the fact that, as Ms Anderson put it, "people don't take two-week family holidays to seaside towns like they used to". They go for single days or short breaks.

In Blackpool they are trying. The hotels have signs and brochures marketing "four days, bed, breakfast and evening meal for £84".

They are also aiming at those groups who prefer not to go abroad: the town is comparatively user-friendly for the disabled with ramps and wheelchair hire much in evidence; pubs have far more family rooms than before, with many offering baby-changing facilities, and there are frequent discounts for old people. The prom is full of wheelchair-users, elderly couples and families with huge numbers of bags and cool-boxes dangling perilously from their pushchairs.

All of which means that seaside resorts still generate £4.5bn of spending in Britain each year. Blackpool is still the biggest single holiday destination in Europe, with 17 million visitors a year. Its fairground area, the Pleasure Beach, is Britain's number one tourist attraction, with more than 7 million visitors annually.

The beach may still be plodded by patient donkeys with names such as Cheyenne and Apache - I couldn't see the name of the third one though presumably it was Sue - but the resort is making real efforts to upgrade to match the thrills available elsewhere.

Seafront discount shops boast cut-price Versace and Armani. There are spectacular spine-shuddering bunjee-jumps on the South Pier. Even Yates's Wine Lodge proclaims "our shorts are now bigger".

At the top of Blackpool Tower there is now only a glass floor between you and the ground 400ft below. The £12m rollercoaster known as the Pepsi Max Big One sends high-pitched shrieks across the sands giving a new overstimulated generation an even more highly charged version of that heady adolescent mix of romantic music and speedinduced adrenalin that has electrified fairgrounds for decades.

Yet for all this strategy of bigger, louder, faster there is still something unchanging about Blackpool and the other British seaside resorts.

There is something quaint and even innocent about the 10.30pm pub closing, about the bars that brag and bluster in their warnings "You are entering a cavorting zone", about the young women who think it a laugh to don joke-shop plastic bosoms for the disco in response to the injunction to get their tits out for the lads. Some find it reassuring. But what of the rest who have not just been spoilt by guaranteed good weather abroad but whose taste has also been sophisticated by European foods and wines or American Disney-style technology?

In the end will a game-plan that is essentially "Kiss me Quicker, Squeeze me slower" be enough? Or does the British seaside town need something entirely different if it is to arrest its slow decline? Towards the end of the day in Blackpool a weary mother could be seen dragging a protesting five-year-old from an amusementarcade.

"Are you ever satisfied?" she said to the tearful boy. The child said nothing. But his answer was clear enough.

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