As an unforgiving wind threatened to blow away beachballs and tubs of candyfloss strung to shopfronts, tourists trudged along Blackpool’s seafront promenade on Thursday lunchtime.
Although the peak of the tourist season – heavily bolstered this summer by travel-anxious Britons choosing to holiday in the UK – has passed, the council is hoping to stop it from petering out completely by extending the town’s famous illuminations by two months.
On Friday, the free lights display was switched on in a virtual ceremony featuring the Spice Girl Mel C, with visitors able to see the attraction in person until 3 January. But business owners are pessimistic about their winter prospects.
“The only thing [the council] are doing is burning electricity,” said Maria Cash, 47, who had closed her ice-cream kiosk on the north end of the promenade for the day because of the weather. “People will just drive through to see the lights, it won’t help local businesses.”
As Cash, and the bar’s owner, Neil Parkinson, 62, sheltered under the awning at Roberts’ Oyster Bar, they said they had seen more tourists this August than in years. “But Blackpool is weather orientated,” added Parkinson, who believed the rain and wind brought over from the Irish Sea would turn off punters. “I ain’t standing here ’til 10 o’clock at night in January and February.”
Those who choose to brace themselves against the north-west’s climate in the coming months will, aside from the lights, be able to visit the town’s Winter Gardens entertainment complex, while Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, Sea Life centre and Madame Tussauds are planning to stay open beyond the usual wind-down period of November.
Gayna Sedgwick, 46, owner of the Blackpool Fish Factory restaurant, who for the past month has been working about four extra hours a day to keep up with demand, will also be open for much of the winter.
But she believed getting holidaymakers to Blackpool was only part of the problem – another was getting them to spend as the coronavirus recession bites. “People are scared. Customers are asking ‘how much is this? how much is that?’ while they’re on holiday – it was never like that before,” she said.
Darren Reasbeck, 51, who worked at an ice-cream parlour close to Sedgwick’s business, felt similarly gloomy. “[The illuminations] won’t make a blind bit of difference. Look at all the unemployment that’s happening – you need employment to go on holiday,” he said.
Blackpool has the highest rate of people claiming unemployment benefits in the UK – more than one in 10 of the local working-age population. With the economic fallout from Covid-19 increasing job losses in the town, the number of claimants there has risen by 6.5% in the year to July, almost double the national average.
Though the extension of the lights display was an emergency measure to try to pull the seaside town back from its lockdown losses, its director for tourism, Alan Cavill, encouraged business owners to remain positive.
Even while competing with fears over the economy and a potential second wave of Covid-19, Blackpool’s largest accommodation providers have told him their advance bookings were last month at least 30% above what they would usually expect between September and December, driven mostly by those unable to find a vacancy elsewhere.
For business owners who make it to the other side, he believes next year’s tourist season could better than this summer’s, while some of those who visited Blackpool for the first time could be back. Amid travel uncertainty in July and August, some operators, including a boutique hotel, Art B&B, said they had found themselves catering to new clientele – such as Londoners who would usually choose day jaunts to Brighton over a break in Blackpool.
“Our hope is that they’ve re-found their affections for a British holiday as a result of trying it out this year,” said Cavill, who added the caveat: “there’ll be a percentage who liked it, and a percentage of those who didn’t go to Spain this year will want to go as soon as [that’s] available again.”