Optimism in the sea air

Blackpool Pleasure Beach should have been opening its gates for its 125th season of thrills on February 6. Instead, like the rest of the famous Prom’s tourist attractions, it remained closed to visitors as the nation continued its third national lockdown.

The impact of the Covid-19 on Blackpool’s vitally important tourism and hospitality sector has been severe. Hitler couldn’t stop the Pleasure Beach fun, the pandemic has.

There was a flicker of hope last July and August, when businesses were allowed to reopen and people flocked to the seaside, but that was soon extinguished by the second wave and the restrictions – and finally the lockdown – that accompanied it.

In October Blackpool Tower was lit up with an SOS message as more than 1,000 traders in the resort wrote to Boris Johnson pleading with him to save its tourism industry.

The importance of that industry cannot be underestimated. It is Blackpool’s economic lifeblood, worth £1.6bn to the local economy and supporting 25,000 jobs.

Robert Owen, director of marketing at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, says: “This is the third lockdown that has affected our business and our ability to trade.

“The impact has been significant, impacting our shows, events, hotels, venues, as well as the park.

Kate Shane, is head of Merlin Entertainments Group’s Blackpool ‘Cluster’. It includes Blackpool Tower, Madame Tussauds and Sealife Blackpool. Like Robert, she is an active member of the Blackpool Tourism Recovery Group, set up Last June by VisitBlackpool after the first national lockdown.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach has operated through two world wars. We will emerge from Covid-19 stronger and even more resilient

That consortium of attractions, venues and accommodation businesses meets weekly. Kate says: “We are now working on a tourism recovery plan that will focus on rebuilding consumer confidence and visitor numbers over the weeks and months ahead.”

Robert acknowledges there has been some help for the sector, “which has been gratefully received.” However, more is needed.

He would like to see a clear route out of the current lockdown, the extension of the reduced rate of VAT and the Business Rates ‘holiday’ and a specific hospitality and tourism recovery fund.

Kate says: “There is a broad consensus within our tourism industry about what needs to be done to support businesses and ensure there is a sustainable recovery.

The support that has been delivered to date is welcome, but it needs to be proportionate to the sheer scale of Blackpool’s tourism industry.

In addition to the extension of the VAT reduction and business rates holiday, it is vital that the government recognises the importance of the domestic tourism industry and provides ongoing support to help us get back to 2019 levels as quickly as possible.

Despite the challenges there is an air of optimism. Kate says: “The positives I take from our 2020 trading was that market demand was there, so I am optimistic for the resort as a whole, once we are allowed to re-open.”

She adds: “We are confident that when we are allowed to reopen, Blackpool will be in a very strong position to attract domestic visitors because of our coastal location and outstanding range of family attractions.

A lot of work is currently taking place behind the scenes to ensure that Blackpool comes back stronger and better. Plans include creating a tourism Business Improvement District (BID) in the resort.

Recent Pleasure Beach investments have included £16.25m on ICON, the UK’s first double launch rollercoaster, plus the new £12m Boulevard Hotel.

Rob says: “Building on the investments we have already seen, plus the projects underway or in the pipeline I think the signs for the future are all positive.”

Pleasure Beach has also invested massively in making the visitor attraction Covid-19 secure with a range of procedures and protocols to keep both guests and staff safe.

He adds: “Our priority is to give our visitors the confidence that, once they are allowed, it is safe to visit.”

Merlin has also been working on projects and investments as it looks to the return of tourists. Kate says: “Blackpool has long thrived on innovation to continually refresh and reinvent itself. We are not – and never will be - a resort that stands still.”

And she adds: We are fortunate that there are large-scale capital projects nearing completion or in the pipeline that will bring a new dimension to Blackpool’s tourism offer including the new conference centre, next generation hotels, the tramway extension, town centre cinema and the resort’s first museum, Showtown.

“The capital schemes in progress will all help with the ambition to make Blackpool a true year-round destination.

“The extension of the Illuminations season by two months in 2020 demonstrated the enduring popularity of that attraction and we have a huge opportunity to reinvent the Illuminations using Town Deal funding.”

Rob adds: Tourism is the lifeblood of the economy in Blackpool and as a business that has invested over £50m in the last 10 years alone, we are 100 per cent committed to an increasingly positive and exciting chapter ahead for the resort.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach has operated through two world wars. While Covid-19 brought a temporary halt and delivered us many challenges we believe Blackpool will emerge stronger and even more resilient.”

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