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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
The tide is turning
Last one off the beach, buys the rock
British beaches are improving, but who's using them? Beyond the decaying piers and rusting fairground rides, we still like to be beside the seaside. By BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

The tide has turned for British seaside resorts and many of the traditional attractions a day at the beach has to offer.

Despite the lure of foreign climes and the growth of the cheap package holiday, Britons are choosing to head once more for the pebbly shores close to home.

seaside postcard
Kitsch souvenirs prove popular with post-modern tourists

British Resorts Association figures show the number of people heading for the seaside for four nights or more - 30 million a year - is the same as in 1965. Some 110 million day-trippers also make for the coast each year.

According to the English Tourism Council, seaside holidays top the list of domestic breaks, accounting for 44% of the holiday market.

In a bid to revive the fortunes of coastal towns, local councils and businesses are cleaning up the beaches, improving facilities and rejuvenating traditional attractions.

On Wednesday, a record number of UK beaches were awarded a Blue Flag for meeting exacting standards of cleanliness and management demanded by the European clean-up scheme. Fifty-seven beaches made the grade, compared to 41 last year.

English seaside holidays
21.4m trips, or 44% of domestic breaks
3.8bn spent at the beach
More popular than historic towns and national parks
19.6m trips

Steve Hayler, of Canterbury Christ Church University College, says Britons are rediscovering their seaside heritage, albeit with a soupcon of knowing irony.

"We had turned our backs on our heritage in a lot of these places, and many fell into decay. But now, people are rediscovering the rich history associated with the seaside holiday resort."

Mr Hayler this week released a report on end-of-pier shows and the fortunes of the seaside resort.

He found that although smaller resorts have lost about half their market share since 1970, and the number of summer shows staged has fallen by 27% since 1996, there is evidence of a fight back.

Summer shows

The few variety shows still running cater mainly for older audiences, and no longer fill the cavernous halls of yesteryear.

Families no longer pack out variety shows

"The variety show is still alive and well in small pockets around the country, yet each is very different depending on the profile of the town."

One company in Cromer, Norfolk, keeps the costs down and the elderly punters happy with a small-scale show that alternates weekly, he says.

"There's no big stars, so there's no big money to pay out; the company is self-sufficient; and the next major town is a good 40 miles away," Mr Hayler says.

But to fill a venue with under-55s, event managers are more likely to opt for a tribute band, touring musical or a comedy line-up.

Taking the air

As in Victorian times, venturing out on the sea without getting wet holds enduring appeal.

Hastings beach
Daytrips and winter mini-breaks are on the increase

In 1900, there were 85 piers in the UK. Only half survived the ravages of time, shipping accidents and fires but with Lottery cash and high-profile backers, a number of the crumbling Victorian-era piers are being restored to their former glory.

Ravaged by fire, Brighton's West Pier was for decades but a ghostly remnant of the past slowly tumbling into the sea. As part of its refurbishment, the underwater supports have been shored up and the decaying pier is floodlit at night.

Head to the other end of the beach on a sunny day, and the Palace Pier is crowded with young thrill-seekers queuing for toffee apples and the old-time funfair.

On the sands at Weston-Super-Mare, donkey rides have been a feature for more than 100 years.

Kevin Mager, whose family has been licensed to keep the hardy beasts on the beach since 1886, explains the appeal.

"Not many resorts have them on the beach. We get kids coming down from Birmingham who have never seen a donkey before, let alone a beach."

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30 May 00 | Sci/Tech
UK beaches in better shape
27 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
British beaches 'improving'
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