Simon Calder: UK's holiday camps get their moment in the sun

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Never mind cash for amendments or cash for questions; our politicians once enjoyed holidays for votes. When the Holidays With Pay Act was passed shortly before the Second World War broke out, Sir Billy Butlin rewarded MPs who had voted in favour of a week's holiday for working men and women with a trip on a special chartered train to one of his holiday camps, at Clacton in Essex.

This week a rival operator, Pontins, announced a £50m improvement package for its UK operations, and the creation of 2,000 new jobs. "We're looking forward to a fabulous future," says Ian Smith, chief executive of Ocean Parcs, which now owns Pontins. To predict how likely that is, let's briefly go back a lifetime. In 1936, Butlin opened the first of his low-cost, high-intensity holiday complexes around the UK shores, at Skegness in Lincolnshire. He believed workers and their families would come for fun to British resorts, regardless of the weather.

Besides the launch of Butlins, 1936 proved a significant year. George V died, uttering (or so it is widely believed) last words that famously condemned the Sussex resort of Bognor Regis to alliterative ignominy. In the long term, Bognor was indeed buggered because of another 1936 innovation, just up the road in Gatwick: the world's first modern air terminal. The Sussex airport is now the country's leading escape-route for British holidaymakers.

The holiday camps did get their time in the sun for a few decades after the war. The red and blue knights (Sir Billy Butlin in the Redcoat corner, Sir Fred Pontin with the Bluecoats) thrived on the British appetite for travel, even if the closest approximation to paradise was no further than the nearest entertainment compound. But Spain held a trump card over Skegness: sunshine. By the mid-1980s more Brits were taking their summer holiday abroad than at home. Since then, the robust growth in holiday-taking has been focused firmly on Abroad, thanks to falling fares and rising disposable income.

Pontins' big bet is that wary holidaymakers will switch en masse from packages in the Mediterranean and Florida to British holiday centres. The investment plans were welcomed by a travel industry desperate for good news. The people who fill the 2,000 new vacancies should also be happy, though domestic tourism endures chronically poor pay (previous Butlins owners lobbied against the national minimum wage). The Government is delighted by evidence of, if I may, the yellow sandcastles of economic recovery. And longer term, anything that persuades us to swap the financial uncertainties of the Continent for the climatic unpredictability of Britain will narrow the £19bn tourism deficit – the excess of our spending abroad over what foreign visitors bring in.

A mass movement away from Palma Nova and towards Prestatyn Sands is an appealing notion, but in the high-pressure Dodgems that the present travel industry resembles, some big risks remain.

The first is that millions of Brits are biting the euro-bullet and booking overseas packages despite the puny pound: this week our biggest tour operator, Tui, said bookings are on target even with prices up 11 per cent. Next, some travellers may decide to holiday at home – literally, perhaps making day-trips in the surrounding area. Low cost for them, low revenue for Britain. Third, if the UK fails to deliver value to holidaymakers who are resting their passports, they won't stay around next year. .

Doubtless some middle-class people will trade down from Club Mark Warner or Center Parcs to Pontins or Butlins this summer. If they escape the 21st-century equivalent of dark, satanic mills, and are at a loose end in Bognor Regis, they could always visit the cottage close to the present Butlins where William Blake wrote "Jerusalem". Until Pontins or others build a holiday Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land, at least we could rename the Dodgems "Chariots of Fire" in Blake's honour.

Now is the winter of our discontented overseas visitors

Even by Thursday, four days after the first batch of heavy snowfall, the British Airways arrivals board at Heathrow Terminal 5 made glum reading. Nine long-haul inbound flights were cancelled – two from South Africa, five from North America, plus Hong Kong and Dubai. While plenty of BA passengers had a miserable time due to the messy sclerosis of airport chaos, the airline does not deserve undue criticism. Indeed, BA recovered remarkably fast from having one-third of its fleet of long-haul aircraft, amounting to 33 wide-bodied Boeings, diverted from Heathrow to airports from Scotland to Portugal. Our national airline, along with BMI, Virgin, easyJet and FlyBe, was clobbered once again by the UK's transportational inadequacy.

By now, most of the affected passengers – perhaps half a million of them – will have got where they needed to be. But I fret about what our collective response to inclement weather says about the UK.

Airport operators in Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt will have watched gleefully as London, the gateway to Europe, shut down again.

Many of those stranded were foreign visitors due to head home after a weekend in the capital. So I took a look at how happy their involuntary extra day in London will have proved. In terms of transport it was dismal. The capital's entire bus system shut down, along with parts of the Tube network. Suppose, though, the stoical tourist had found their way to one of London's top 10 attractions (in terms of visitor numbers); what would they have found?

Many opened as normal, but closed at around 3pm or 4pm to allow staff to battle home: the British Museum, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, Science Museum and Madame Tussaud's. The National Gallery and the V&A had restricted hours and some galleries were closed to visitors. In Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum was open normally, but the Royal Observatory was closed all day. So too were the London Eye and the Tower of London, citing "health and safety" concerns after a dose of snow that a Montrealer or a Muscovite would barely notice.

At a time when Britain needs to be taken seriously as an economic power, we appear content to muddle through our mediocrity while the world sniggers: only a British Rail official could have coined the celebrated complaint about the "wrong kind of snow" gumming up the nation's trains.