Grim weather dampens tourism’s economic hopes

Author: By Cahal Milmo, Chief Reporter

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.”

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