Britain’s frumpy old tourist towns hope Brexit keeps vacationers at home
By William Booth and Karla Adam,
MARGATE, England — There has been a rash of gloomy economic forecasts for Britons ever since they voted to abandon the European Union. But here’s a bright spot of news: Frumpy tourist towns in England may be poised for a boomlet.
You might have to be a hotelier in Cornwall or a publican in the Cotswolds to appreciate the irony, but the call for tighter borders marked by the Brexit vote in June could be a win for the tourism industry in the United Kingdom, at least in the short term.
The Yanks are coming. The Europeans, too. They’re suddenly finding hotel rooms in London nearly affordable, because the value of the British pound is at a three-decade low against the dollar and has also slumped against the euro and Asian currencies.
But the Brits may be their own best customers. This may be a fine time for foreigners shopping for discounts in the United Kingdom, but it is tough for people here who traditionally travel abroad in search of sun during the summer months.
It’s too soon to know for sure, but tourism officials say British travelers may be bidding adios to Majorca and saying hallo to Blackpool.
Out: Bouillabaisse at Chez Fonfon in Marseilles.
In: Jellied eels at Manning’s Seafood Stall in Margate.
On the eve of the Brexit vote, Michael O’Leary, head of the budget airline Ryanair, launched a 24-hour super-discount sale of 9.99-pound fares to European cities from Britain. The Irish executive was hoping Britain would vote to remain in the European Union.
O’Leary warned that leaving the bloc could usher in an age of higher-priced jet travel to the continent.
Will Britons really stay put this summer — and are they returning to resorts such as Margate, often derided in the British press as a seaside slum?
“We’ve been ridiculed over the years, so it would be satisfying to see more visitors,” said Trevor Lamb, who rents affordable bouncy castles for kiddie parties in Margate.
By “ridiculed,” Lamb meant how the London press heaps scorn on also-ran cities in the east of England.
The Guardian once wondered aloud if “Margate may be the saddest of all” Britain’s seaside towns. The Telegraph favors “Poverty-by-the-Sea” as a descriptor.
As the English seaside towns withered, British social scientists said they became “dumping grounds” for the poor and welfare-dependent.
The British resort towns essentially invented the modern seaside vacations. They also voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union.
They thrived before they were abandoned by British tourists lured away by cheap international airfares and globalized package vacations to southern Spain and the Greek isles.
Today, there’s a kind of Coney Island in the 1970s vibe to some of the resorts, with plenty of boarded-up shops, tattoo parlors and Chinese takeout.
“We’ll see if it comes back,” said Lamb, who admitted he was skeptical. It seems too good to be true.
He said he hadn’t voted in years but turned out to cast a ballot to leave the European Union.
“It’s busy today,” Lamb said, pointing toward the yellow-sand beach packed with “DFLs,” local slang for “Down From London” weekenders who hop on the train for the hour-long trip.
The beach was crowded with partygoers blasting reggae, grilling jerk chicken and competing in tug-of-war contests.
The Tourism Alliance, a trade association, predicted that the British pound’s post-Brexit slump may depress outbound travel but could encourage a kind of “Staycation 2,” a repeat of the last domestic boom that followed on the heels of the global financial meltdown of 2008, when a mass of British holidaymakers decided to forgo trips abroad and vacation at home.
British tourism officials reported a spike in online searches for flights and hotel bookings in England, Wales and Scotland after the Brexit vote.
For a generation of Britons, going on a holiday meant catching a low-cost flight on discount airlines to a country where spotting the sun is virtually guaranteed.
They have transformed — for better, often worse — vast stretches of Spanish coastline with cities of time-share villas.
Last year, Britons spent substantially more money abroad than did those coming into the United Kingdom for vacation.
At the Margate tourism office, a staff member said there have been days when visitors call asking about available hotel rooms and they have to scramble to find them one.
A circle of day-tripping “DFLs” were crowded into the Lifeboat pub, drinking local Kentish ale, skeptical about the idea of a Brexit bump in stay-at-home tourism to places like Margate. The pound was low, but they wondered why anyone would spend more than a day here. Then again, they conceded Margate was cleaning up its act. The old brick city center is bustling with vintage clothes shops, wine bars and art galleries.
Down by the seafront, the Turner Contemporary museum opened in 2011, an extension of the Tate Modern in London.
It’s free and popular — and part of an arty renaissance.
The Automobile Association said that 1 in 14 holidaymakers who had planned to travel abroad this summer will either stay at home or “staycation” in Britain.
“Anecdotally, there’s evidence of an uptick,” said Patricia Yates, director of VisitBritain, the nation’s tourist body. “Liverpool is talking about a spike in U.S. visitors. Isle of Wight says there’s a significant leap on website traffic. Yorkshire is predicting a boom, particularly in domestic holidays. And the weather here is cracking.”
Yates said that there were signs of the rising popularity of staycations before Brexit. She said that in the first quarter of 2016, 7.3 million Britons vacationed in England, up 10 percent compared with the same period in 2015.
She said one reason is security fears: Britons were shying away from once-popular destinations such as Tunisia following concerns about terrorist attacks.
Ufi Ibrahim, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, an industry body, agreed that it was “too soon to tell” if the weakening pound would lead to a surge of business for the hospitality industry.
“There’s a real sense of optimism, hope and opportunity and a desire to seize this opportunity and lock in our competitive advantage,” she said.
David Wells, a partner in a Margate vintage clothes and accessory shop called Just Jane, said he is seeing new admiration for the town.
“There was a fellow the other day who told me he hadn’t been here in 10 or 20 years and heard, ‘Oh, what a . . . hole,’ but then they see it for themselves and they say, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to come back.’ ”
“There’s a lot to see if people give us the chance,” Wells said.
Adam reported from London.