Wish you were here. . . because we could go broke without you

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The Independent Online
'IT IS dead, absolutely dead,' said a Torbay beach attendant, pointing to the empty beach and a pile of deck chairs. The windsurfing school and boat-hire shed are deserted. 'I don't think they've had a customer all day,' he added.

This story is repeated across the country, from the English Riviera of Torquay, Brixham and Paignton to Blackpool.

England's tourist industry is collapsing. The scale of the crisis was underlined last week by an English Tourist Board report which said hotels were suffering their worst trading conditions for over a decade. Many faced bankruptcy.

On a warm and hazy day last week, at the height of the season in the English Riviera, the waiters were standing idly in the restaurants, the camp sites were deserted, the fresh-fish stalls were throwing their produce away and the pleasure fishing trips were cancelled.

Jenny Higgins has run pleasure fishing trips from Brixham harbour for the last 15 years. Last year her takings were halved. This year she has had to cancel trips. 'I am running at a loss. People used to queue for these trips - now I am lucky if I have one full trip a day,' she said.

The 'For Sale' signs have been up along Torquay's Golden Mile for several months. Once the hotels and bed-and- breakfasts were full throughout the season. Today they are empty. John Forster, a retired aircraft engineer, owns a bed- and-breakfast on the Mile. For the last nine years he has been full, but this year his rooms are empty and he has no future bookings. 'This is the worst season ever, we are all slowly dying. There have been three repossessions just along this road, and at least a dozen have given the business up for good and moved on,' he said.

Since Easter, 70 hotels in Torquay, Brixham and Paignton have been repossessed. A further 30 are run by receivers. Ted Jones, chairman of Paignton Hotel Association, has pleaded with the banks to 'be patient' and not foreclose.

Robert and Joan Blake, of Lancaster, have spent their last five holidays at Torquay, and pinpoint one of its main problems. 'It just doesn't attract the youngsters. We know people who have been coming here for years but many of them have now died,' said Mr Blake.

Tourism is the West Country's main industry. It is the most popular long-stay holiday choice in Britain, bringing in more than pounds 2bn in 1990. But the future does not look rosy. The English Tourist Board's annual report confirmed a drop in the numbers taking holidays in England last year - nine million tourists went to the English Riviera in 1991 compared with 12 million in 1990. Revenue across the country from British and foreign tourists fell by 4 per cent in 1991 to pounds 14.3bn.

Many holiday resorts have been forced to offer 'recession breakers' to attract the tourists. Several hotels in Blackpool now offer 'children free' or 'two nights for the price of one'. For one guesthouse owner in Newquay, the only solution is to collect the guests from their own homes.

Although visitors to Alton Towers continue to increase, many theme parks have been forced to cut prices. Land's End, in Cornwall, admits children under 15 free. 'The Perils of the Deep', a new maritime attraction at Brixham, is running at a loss, despite low overheads.

With the collapse of the Thames and Chilterns Tourist Board last week and Land Travel, a West Country coach tour company, the industry admits tourism has to change if it is to survive.

William Davis, the ETB chairman, believes Britain has to 'go for the hard sell', especially to domestic tourists, who spent pounds 7.9bn in England last year. 'This year has seen a recovery in overseas visits to Britain, but the domestic scene continues to cause concern,' he said.

So from next year, the ETB will sell England to English visitors as a magical land they know only too well: a place of factories and railway junctions. 'Everybody knows we have castles and monasteries. But I have been very much struck by our rich industrial heritage and how many places have been turned into tourist attractions,' said Mr Davis.

Among the new-style 'heritage' attractions the board plans to promote are Sellafield, food processing plants, oil rigs, pumping stations, sewage works, a telephone exchange and a chocolate factory.

'We owe a lot to Walt Disney,' Mr Davis said, explaining that he hoped to bring the benefits of tourism to places that did not have palm trees. 'We will not be creating new tourist attractions. We want to draw attention to what already exists and raise its profile. Bath and Oxford are overcrowded. We want to draw attention to less crowded places.'

But for many business people this is not the solution. The English Riviera hired a London advertising agency to create a 'fresh' image. The motif of a palm tree and sunny beach is now everywhere, but it has failed to halt the decline.

'No image can save us,' said Mrs Higgins. Although the council refuses to be pessimistic, it is getting rid of over half the deck chairs. The beach attendant thought they could be used for firewood.

(Photograph omitted)