Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Monday, 17 August 2009 00:06 UK

Staycation summer boosts Swanage

By Zoe Kleinman
Business Reporter, BBC News

How Swanage is beating recession

"They used to say Swanage is half an hour from Poole, but you go back 20 years in that half an hour," says local businessman Greg Vaughn.

With its stone shop-fronts and steam railway, the small town of Swanage in Dorset exudes an olde worlde charm, but it has an entrepreneurial streak that is staving off the recession.

Bob Mcgee, chair of the local Chamber of Commerce, estimates that out of a population of around 10,000, roughly 4,000 are of working age and 1,500 of those are self-employed.

Big spenders

Those running the local shops say business is booming this summer as holidaymakers flock to the seaside instead of taking their annual break abroad.

Even in the middle of a recession, these visitors are buying far more than an ice-cream and a sunhat during their stay.

Fine art gallery The Photographers Lounge says it is selling an average of five large pieces of artwork every month, alongside a steady stream of smaller (and cheaper) mounted prints.

A recent exhibition of early pictures taken by 1960s photographer Philip Townsend included individual photographs worth several hundred pounds.

Sunshine and sales

"People don't know what to invest in, so they are now investing in artwork," believes gallery owner Kate Cross.

We like a nice cloudy day, not too wet - that's when we get lots of footfall
Kate Cross, The Photographers Lounge

She says her customers range from collectors and art lovers to passing locals and tourists, but she says the weather can make or break a day's trade.

"If it's boiling hot everybody is on the beach or off walking," Ms Cross explains.

"If it's pouring with rain then they're at home or in the caravan playing Cluedo. We like a nice cloudy day, not too wet - that's when we get lots of footfall."

Remote access

The area is particularly popular with walkers and outdoor enthusiasts, while its sandy beaches attract visitors with young families.

Swanage investors on the recession

Swanage itself is fairly remote, which locals say is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

It is good news for local hardware store Nixons that a browse in the nearest competitor B&Q requires a 90-minute round trip.

But some visitors are less keen on the distance to a more traditional High Street experience.

"Youth groups often ask how far it is to the nearest Pizza Hut," says Tim Hughes, owner of Brenscombe Outdoor Centre. "I tell them it's a 45-minute drive - they're not always very impressed with that."

In May this year, for the first time since 1972, a steam train ran direct from London to Swanage, attracting coverage in the national press. Bob Mcgee thinks this has put the town on the map in 2009.

"The visitor numbers for the trains is up 25%," he says.

"I believe that alone has boosted business in the town by about 20%."

Housing hit hard

David Corben
I don't think we're out of the woods yet - I think this winter is going to be extremely difficult
David Corben, Estate Agent

Not everybody has been protected from the storm of the recession. The housing market has been particularly turbulent, despite Swanage being in the heart of an area traditionally popular among those wishing to buy second homes.

"Last winter was absolutely diabolical," says estate agent David Corben of Corben and Son.

"I've been in the business for 40 years and I cannot remember a time when there were so few sales. Come March though, it was as if the floodgates had opened for buyers."

Bleak winter

After a recovery that seemed to happen "almost overnight", Mr Corben says that house prices are now stable again. His concern is that if interest rates start to rise towards the end of the year, the market will once again be thrown into turmoil.

Last year people listened to the media, started panicking and didn't want to spend. This year they seem to be saying 'to hell with it'
Vicky Bowen

"I don't think we're out of the woods yet - I think this winter is going to be extremely difficult," he predicts.

Alyson Liles, landlady at the Black Swan Inn, agrees.

"This winter will be harsh," she says. "Everyone had better be cautious."

She says her regulars are already telling her that they are going out less to save money, and once winter hits they will be the majority of her client base.

"The recession is on its way down to us," she warns.

Panic over

Further down the High Street is Candleworld, a brightly coloured grotto of candles, fairy lights and decorations.

Candleworld's owner says last summer was worse than this

Its owner Vicky Bowen is more upbeat. She thinks her shop will survive after a bumper summer of sales, as her customers stock up on house and garden accessories.

"Business was much slower last summer," she says.

"Last year people listened to the media, started panicking and didn't want to spend. This year they seem to be saying 'to hell with it'."

Ms Bowen thinks that people will continue to holiday by the seaside long after the summer is over.

Swanage is part of the 95-mile stretch of coastline awarded World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2001.

Last year a local survey revealed that 82% of respondents believed it had had a positive impact on the local economy.

The Abbott family, on holiday from Worthing, are among the visitors to Swanage who chose not to go abroad on holiday this year.

"We've been here before, seven years ago, and we had a great time then. We thought we'd come back now the kids are a bit older," says David Abbott.

"We've just done a motorboat ride, it's been great fun."

He is less enthusiastic about the shopping, however. "The High Street, hmm, it's nothing fabulous," he frowns. "But I don't do shopping."

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