The British are back. Fifty years after the masses began to discover abroad, holidays at home are booming and it is the middle classes that are leading the way. Tuscany may never be the same again.
Tourism experts are reporting a new trend this season: busy professionals are increasingly turning to Britain for their family holidays. VisitBritain, which promotes the UK to residents and foreign visitors, said that in the past year or so it has seen "a huge rise" in people holidaying at home on farms, in boutique and good-quality hotels and at seaside resorts "at the better end of the market".
The result is that classier locations, such as Padstow in Cornwall and Sheringham in Norfolk, are now packed, and there are very few hotel rooms, if any, left for the forthcoming week. The Tourist Information Centre at Sheringham said that high demand meant that finding hotel rooms there this week was "a nightmare".
The areas benefiting from the middle-class return are Devon and Cornwall, north Norfolk, the Lakes, parts of south, west and north Wales, and the Scottish Highlands and islands. But the new holidaying Britons are being selective. Salcombe in Devon is thriving, but nearby Paignton and Torquay, more mass-market resorts, are appreciably quieter.
An Independent on Sunday straw poll of resorts' information centres found many whose good hotels are fully booked for the next week. Padstow said that this week is the peak of its season and there was virtually no availability; in Newquay some of the many B&Bs and guesthouses could accommodate, but the hotels that had rooms advised booking "very quickly"; Minehead said it was "very busy" and the four hotels within walking distance of the sea that we contacted were all fully booked; and Ilfracombe also said it was "really busy".
Bernard Donahue of VisitBritain said: "The people tending to come through our doors are busy, stressed parents in professional jobs who don't usually have much quality time with their children. They find that if they travel less, there is more time for fun, and they can recreate their own childhood memories."
They are not the only ones; celebrities are finding that you don't have to go to St Tropez for a good time. VisitBritain has issued a list of where the stars have been spotted holidaying. They include St Mawes, Cornwall, where Pierce Brosnan, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Winslet have been seen; Croyde, Devon, which Jamie Oliver visited; and the Lake District, where celebrity visitors included Sir Paul McCartney and Nicole Kidman.
There is a whole range of factors driving the middle-class boom. UK holidays at quality locations, usually one of the costliest choices on the market, are this year, with the pound weak against the euro, about 15 per cent cheaper than last year. And problems with flight delays, strikes and worries about international instability (many bookings would have been made in the period before the Iraq conflict had started) have all boosted the home holiday front.
Tourism industry experts, however, think there are other, longer-lasting factors at work. Bob Cotton of the British Hospitality Association, which represents 9,000 UK hotels, said one of the keys to success for hotels and resorts is investment in better leisure facilities. He said: "People now want a quality product and the places that give it to them are reaping the rewards." He cited the Cornish resorts Padstow and Newquay, which have, like the rest of that county, benefited from the "Eden Project effect".
Some venues that were formerly saddled with a distinctly "naff" image are booming as well. Brighton, he said, was seeing the rewards of council investment to upgrade the seafront, and private money was now coming in, with hotels upgrading and new ones opening. Even Minehead, for years associated with the nearby Butlins, was now surprisingly smart, with a new multi-million-pound promenade and beach, which has helped to bring better-quality shops, restaurants and therefore visitors to the town. And Mr Cotton felt that the general improvement in British food was a factor too. "Gone are the days when you felt you had to go to Provence for a decent meal," he said.
Maybe we have just got better at complaining. Mr Donahue of VisitBritain said: "It is a myth that the most discerning visitors that we get are Germans or Americans. Now they are the British. The most vocal critic that the British holiday industry now has to deal with is the middle-class Briton."
Dawn Chisham and her family have just returned from their summer holiday: a fortnight at Daymer Bay in Cornwall.
The mother of two from Felpham, West Sussex, firmly believes that there is a lot to be said for holidaying at home - especially for families with young children.
"This is the fourth time we've been to Cornwall for our summer holiday, and it's great," said Mrs Chisham, 32, who travelled to Daymer Bay with her husband James, five-year-old daughter Matilda, and son Noah, two.
"There are some beautiful beaches down there, with white sand and perfect blue sea. On some of the really hot days, it almost seemed like being in California."
Mrs Chisham and her husband have been on a number of foreign holidays in the past - particularly to America - but since having children they have preferred to stay in Britain for their annual break. This year, they stayed in a luxury self-catered apartment just off Daymer Bay, at a cost of £850 a week.
"It's just easier to go somewhere like Cornwall than to get on a plane when you've got little children," she said. "When they're so small, all they want to do is play on the beach, build sandcastles and paddle in the sea - and there are so many nice places to do that in this country."
Mrs Chisham does concede that the unreliable British weather might persuade some people to holiday abroad, but it didn't stop her family.
"Even when it was overcast, we still went on the beach. We just put jumpers on," she said. "You just make the most of it: there wasn't a single day when we stayed in.
"We went crabbing, and hired wetsuits to go bodyboarding - there are so many things to do down there, and the children loved it. They were upset when we had to come home. In fact, we all were. We'll definitely go back again. If your children are happy, you're happy."
Mike Armstrong from Maidenhead, Kent, is currently planning his family's third overseas holiday of the year.
The 49-year-old marketing director and his wife Helen have already taken their two young children to Greece and Italy this year, and are hoping to fly to the Caribbean or Indian Ocean next month.
Mr Armstrong's children, Lucy, three, and Max, who is nearly two, have travelled further in their pre-school years than many people achieve in a lifetime.
"Outside Europe, we've taken Lucy to Barbados twice, and both of them to the Bahamas once," said Mr Armstrong. "It's just the obvious reasons really: first, guaranteed good weather, and second, better value for money when you take an overseas holiday.
"European breaks are often cheaper than holidays in this country," he continued. "We went to Kos in June, and an all-inclusive week in a four-star hotel cost the adults £299 each. A good hotel in the UK would cost more than that - and you'd have to pay for food."
Mr Armstrong also said that, in his experience, foreign holidays were often easier for families with younger children.
"When you go abroad, the general service and attitude tend to be much better," he said. "I don't think British businesses have caught on to being properly child-friendly - you try taking a small kid into a restaurant or a bar in the UK."
An avid scuba diver and skier, Mr Armstrong said that holidays in Britain simply didn't have enough to offer him and his family.
"We haven't been on holiday in the UK since before the children were born," said Mr Armstrong. "In fact, now I think about it, I haven't actually had a holiday in this country for around 20 years."Reuse content