Grim weather dampens tourism's economic hopes

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The Independent Online

Felipe Ramirez shivered under his cagoule as another biting rainshower doused him and his family while they sheltered from the full force of the British summer under Southwold Pier. As he shook the water droplets from his fish and chip container, he spoke for many of his fellow holidaymakers: "I love England but I'm feeling a little cheated. By the weather."



The 46-year-old doctor from Madrid took the decision to swap the guaranteed sunshine of his homeland for the unspoilt and slightly more unpredictable glories of the Suffolk coast after being reassured by reports of MetOffice forecasts that Britain was going to enjoy a balmy summer.

But, perhaps like many of the five million Britons who are expected to participate in the so-called "Staycation" of 2009 by holidaying in the United Kingdom, he was reassessing the wisdom of his decision after a week of dodging downpours with his wife and three children amid forlorn images of aquaplaning bicycles on flooded Lake District campsites and rained-off cricket matches.

Dr Ramirez said: "I think you British are a little more used to this than us. We are finding it a bit difficult not knowing whether to bring out with us our suntan cream or our raincoats. I read a report on the BBC that the UK was going to be hot this year and because of the cheaper pound we thought it was time to come here. Now two of my children have colds and our clothes from this morning are drying in the hotel. I'm not sure we'll come back, not for the summer at least."

By yesterday morning, the Spanish doctor and the current slice of the four million people who turn up for a taste of the North Sea air in this well-heeled town, recently voted the quintessential English resort, would have been feeling slightly happier as blue skies and untrammelled sunshine wreathed its reassuringly expensive beach huts.

But after much excitement about the economic and cultural significance of the Staycation – around 20 per cent of Britons who normally go abroad are set to stay at home, pouring an extra £27bn into the domestic market – the first cracks were appearing in the attempts to prod the national psyche into loving Blighty that little bit more by getting up close and personal with her geography.

Tourism chiefs yesterday admitted that this week's tweaking by the MetOffice of its August weather forecast away from its ill-fated long-range prediction of a "barbecue summer" towards a more traditional British summer menu of sunshine and showers could result in many last-minute vacationers deciding to head abroad after all.

With its carefully-calibrated mixture of nostalgia and tastefully-executed facilities for the vacationing metropolitan classes (it is not by mistake that it has been labelled "Boden On Sea" or, as one commentator put it, "1955 – but with olives"), Southwold has done well so far from the Staycation.

Adnams, Southwold's famous brewery and its largest employer, estimates that numbers staying at its two trendy hotels in the town are up by about five per cent and turnover at its pier – rebuilt in 2001 and as such the first to be built in Britain in 50 years – is up by a fifth.

Darren Newman, head of tourism events for Waveney District Council, said business was booming along the Sunrise Coast, which stretches from Southwold to Lowestoft. Overall, earnings from tourism in Suffolk have increased by 60 per cent in just three years to £1.6bn.

He said: "We have had to a do second print run of our guide to what's on and where to stay in the area, otherwise we would have run out by now. We're hearing across the board that business is up.

"We have seen a little bit more rain than would have liked in the last couple of weeks but over all we have been lucky with the weather. We have our fingers crossed for some steady sunshine for the next couple of months."

Others point out that if the town which has become renowned for its generous sprinkling of thinking person's celebrities (PD James, Julie Myerson, Richard Curtis, Emma Freud, Twiggy, Michael Palin and Bill Nighy all either have holiday homes within the vicinity or are regular visitors) cannot do well in the current climate then there is little hope for less glamorous locations.

Even one of its tourism officials admits "the area smells of wealth".

But in its pubs and beach huts, which sell at anywhere between £35,000 and £90,000, there was evidence that it only takes a few days of leaden skies and obligatory wearing of Cath Kidston rain coats to trample on a Staycation feelgood factor.

One holidaymaker taking shelter from a passing deluge on Thursday afternoon over a pint of Adnam's bitter in the Lord Nelson pub overlooking a murky North Sea said: "After all the problems of recent months with the economy and so on, it just feels like that gods owe us a break. Instead, you get days like this when it pisses down and you think ‘yep, things really aren't getting any better'."

The fact remains that efforts to make Britain what industry wonks like to call a "dynamic offer" via the mushrooming of festivals for all tastes, boutique hotels and better restaurants, seem to be paying off. Hoseasons, one of the UK's biggest operators, revealed last week that bookings were up 20 per cent while organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage have large rises in membership and visitors.

But with about 11 per cent of Britons leaving it up to a week before departure before booking their holiday and August vacancy rates running at about 35 per cent as opposed to the normal level of 20 per cent, there is nervousness that the Staycation could become, well, a damp squib.

A spokesman for VisitBritain said: "We remain very optimistic we will see the domestic market up by the end of the year. But overall Brits are fond of sunny destinations. Those people who haven't yet booked may decide to head overseas because there is now no guarantee of the weather over August."

Meanwhile, on Southwold Pier, there is a more philosophical perspective.

Among the old fashioned amusements installed in its arcade is a new tongue-in-cheek game called "Whack a Banker" which offers a "unique opportunity to discipline reckless bankers" by smashing wooden financiers over the head with a mallet.

Owner Stephen Bournes said: "I think there is something bigger going on with more people staying at home. By staying in Britain, we get the chance to absorb our culture, with all our strengths and eccentricities. It allows us to understand again what we are about as a nation."

Says who? The Forecast this weekend

MET OFFICE

Rain moves east today with many parts becoming dry by the evening with some sunshine. Rain will linger in parts of Scotland and the South-east. Sunshine and a few showers tomorrow with rain following later.

METCHECK

Rain this morning followed by a break of sunshine at noon and showers from 3pm. Maximum temperatures of 20C. Some sunshine tomorrow morning with highs of 21C in the afternoon.

WEATHER COMMERCE

Unsettled across many areas today with outbreaks of heavy rain or showers. Tomorrow mainly dry with sunny spells across the South and South-east, outbreaks of rain spreading across the North and West.

WEATHER ONLINE

Maximum temperatures of 2C today, mainly cloudy all day with rain in the afternoon and heavy storms in the evening. Signs of sunshine early tomorrow morning, getting cloudier towards the afternoon.

ACCUWEATHER

Highs of 19C with intermittent showers during today and cloudy this evening. Tomorrow mostly cloudy, no showers and the odd break of sun, with highs of 2C.

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