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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Vegas on Sea
Blackpool used to be synonymous with donkeys, rock, the tower and roller coasters. It could soon add gambling to that list if government proposals go ahead. But not everyone's jumping for joy as the Money Programme discovered.

The government plans to relax the gambling laws and has a vision of Britain as a mecca for gamblers.

The proposal has caught the imagination of leisure entrepreneur Marc Etches and he envisages turning Blackpool into a UK version of Atlantic City, the tourist destination on the east coast of the US.

More than just talk

Etches is no mere talker. As managing director of Leisure Parcs, owners of Blackpool's Tower, piers and Winter Gardens, he's actually in a position to do something about it and he thinks Blackpool could become a Las Vegas on Sea.

The attraction would come complete with a Pharaoh's Palace Resort that would dwarf local development and could make upwards of 50m a year from gamblers flocking to the resort.

"Blackpool in the last 30 years has ground to a halt and I think this resort could resurrect it," he says.

Holidaymakers have enjoyed Blackpool's beachside attractions for over 130 years and although it still attracts between five and ten million tourists a year, this is well down on the 17 million it used to get.

Pharaoh's Palace

Etches' ambitious plans are an answer to town councillors and others who wonder how Blackpool can move with the times and win back the customers lost to cheap overseas package holidays, but without sacrificing its unique heritage and character.

With Blackpool increasingly attractive to hundreds of drunken stag and hen parties every weekend, Etches hopes that building a Pharaoh's Palace Resort in Blackpool will also bring back families and act as a catalyst for regeneration of the Ukase favourite resort.

This would bring a new kind of visitor to the resort - one which in recent times might increasingly have gone abroad.

Local uncertainty

But others are not so sure. Local restaurateurs fear that Blackpool's experience will mirror that of Atlantic City where small businesses the length and breadth of the resort went out of business as the major leisure operators moved in.

Joe Faldatta, one restaurateur in Atlantic City, says dozens of restaurants closed because people who went to the town's major gambling attractions never went outside to buy anything:

"In the late 1970s there were 318 restaurants here, now there are fewer than 100. Atlantic City's success has hit local businesses which hoped gambling would give them more business. It hasn't happened. The most people see of Atlantic City itself is what they see through their car window."

Atlantic City's managers admit that their aim is to give their customers 'everything they could possibly want' so that they don't need to go out of the casino hotels for anything.

It's a scenario Blackpool's tourist chiefs are worried about. There is also concern that Etches' plans will not bring in families - seen as the future lifeblood of the resort - either.

The evidence in the US is far from encouraging. Atlantic City and Las Vegas are both seen as one-dimensional resorts, adult entertainment centres that are not attractive to families with young children. Etches, however, dismisses the scepticism: "Blackpool has the tower, the Pleasure Beach, it's about building on these facilities, not getting rid of them."

Gambling addiction

Even so, Gamblers Anonymous says it fears a big upsurge in the number of people who will find they can't control their gambling instincts. In New Jersey, Atlantic City's home state, 5% of the population are believed to have a gambling problem. It's a worry that has ensured the government kept a tight lid on the gambling industry in the UK - until now.

The government's White Paper, 'A Safe Bet for Success' envisages lifting this lid, letting punters bet 24 hours a day, go for bigger jackpots and enjoy themselves amid glitzy, glamorous surroundings. It may be hard to imagine a Caesar's Palace in Blackpool, but if Etches and colleagues get their way, it may be just a matter of time.

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 27 February 2003.


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