Blackpool: Why isn't it marketed to foreign tourists?

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Media captionOld-fashioned fun beside the sea in Blackpool

Britain's most popular seaside resort has spent millions on regeneration but the tourist authorities aren't marketing it to foreign visitors. Are they a little bit ashamed, or are there genuine obstacles?

In the 1950s a week or two by the seaside was the highlight of the year for the ordinary Briton.

But the jewel of Britain's seaside towns, Blackpool, once an ideal destination for low-cost family fun, has struggled to maintain its identity in the years after low cost air travel and holidays in the sun became more affordable.

The families were joined by hen parties, stag groups and drunken day trippers, and Blackpool became a byword to some for an aggressively cheap kind of experience.

But the seaside town - popularly associated with "kiss me quick" hats, candy floss, and sticks of rock - has spent years smartening itself up and is currently undergoing a multi-million pound facelift.

Visitor numbers have risen to 13 million a year - making it more popular than the Taj Mahal or the Statue of Liberty.

But the number of overseas tourists remains low, at less than 1% of the total recorded numbers, according to VisitBritain. So is Britain keeping its favourite resort a secret for good reason, or could more foreign tourists be persuaded to visit?

It has a famous tower, three piers, a spectacular festival of lights, and the Pleasure Beach - the UK's most popular amusement park.

But its reputation took a battering when it went through "a bit of a low patch", admits Alan Cavill, assistant director of tourism for Blackpool Council.

Up until the mid-1980s Blackpool attracted 17 million visitors a year but during the 1990s this number fell to 10 million, at least in part because of the competition from budget airlines and foreign package holidays.

Cavill now believes people within the UK are rediscovering the resort. "Something like 65% of all people in the UK have been here at some point during their lives - and whether they like it or love it, they're giving it another chance and realising it's not the same Blackpool they visited a few years ago."

But he acknowledges it hasn't done a very good job of promoting itself abroad.

"We're not famous for overseas visitors - but now we've got some internationally recognised brands here, like Madame Tussauds, and the Blackpool Eye, to rival the London and Sydney Eye."

A marketing company is now trying to promote Blackpool in the same way as Florida markets itself to the rest of the world.

"Some brands forsook Blackpool for years as they didn't see it as a family resort, or upmarket enough - the fact that we now have Nando's and a Pizza Express opening is a big thing for the town," says Cavill.

Prime Minister David Cameron has urged attractions in the UK to work hard to encourage foreign tourists to visit, particularly the growing middle class in China. But might Blackpool appeal to them in the same way that London or Bath does?

It's not a question VisitBritain can easily answer. Despite repeated calls and emails to ask why Blackpool is not being promoted to international visitors, a satisfactory answer is not immediately forthcoming. VisitBritain's press officers seem genuinely puzzled by the question.

Spokesman Mark Di-Toro goes so far as to say that Blackpool is among the top 40 or 50 locations for foreign visitors but admits that "it's not that well known abroad as yet - there's been a lot of regeneration and it's an area we do promote but mainly for domestic tourists".

Jimmy Zhang from Titicaca Travel, a Chinese travel company specialising in trips to the UK, says that Blackpool has not been a popular request as part of an itinerary for Chinese tour groups.

"It's just not as well known as Edinburgh or the Lake District," Zhang notes.

"Blackpool's main attraction is the seaside and Chinese people don't come halfway round the world to see the sea - they want to see historic buildings, Oxford and Cambridge, Stonehenge or Stratford upon Avon. They want to go to Manchester because of the football club."

The Chinese tourist market is growing rapidly, driven by burgeoning affluence.

"Once they have been to Europe they want to visit the UK as well - they're really interested in its history," says Zhang.

Strolling along Blackpool's seafront, a high tide lashing up the steps and huge seagulls hovering above on the look-out for discarded chips, you will encounter a few foreign tourists, but they are a small minority.

Bruce, from Newfoundland, Canada, is on a two-week trip to England and said he wanted to see Blackpool after Jack and Vera Duckworth visited it on the British soap opera Coronation Street.

"It's beautiful and very busy - but I think unless you're a fan of Coronation Street, Canadians don't know about it - it's not promoted in Canada, but of course the American amusement parks are. I've been walking along the promenade and enjoying the smell of Blackpool - cotton candy, French fries and salty sea air."

Image caption The observation platform at the top of the Grade I-listed Blackpool Tower features a skywalk

Much of Blackpool's £300m regeneration project is concentrated on restoring its iconic heritage buildings - the Blackpool Tower and the art deco Winter Gardens.

Claire Smith opened a boutique hotel in Blackpool four years ago, and believes the regeneration of Blackpool's seafront has brought back confidence to the town, and a new type of visitor.

"When Lancashire lost its mill towns, potteries and mining works and factories closed down people started coming to Blackpool en masse, the prices of B&Bs went down and so did the quality - it only takes two seasons for somewhere to look tired and shabby - and the guests were of a lesser quality."

But she says with the arrival of global brands people are seeing the changes. "We've cleaned our act up. It will attract more families - Blackpool has always been about the mods and the rockers, the stags and the hens, and I think that will stay. But it's also about fun - embracing the new of the future and the good of the old."

There is a general consensus that people don't come to Blackpool for art galleries and sophistication but for fun and popular culture. Richard Ryan has been managing Blackpool's Illuminations since 1999 and says he thinks Blackpool is Britain's "guilty pleasure".

"People can be snobby about Blackpool but we need to remove some of that guilt - it did have a tacky period but so did all of Britain's seaside resorts," he added.

He thinks a lot of the negative perceptions of Blackpool come from people in the south of England. "There is a place for everybody, the lord of the manor can come and so can his butler. It won't do any harm to attract a 'higher class' of visitor - but we also have to be mindful of our constituency, not alienate them."

Not all is bright in the northern resort. Although only 13.5 miles square, Blackpool is one of the country's most densely populated towns, with 142,000 residents.

The local economy is highly seasonal, with many low-paid jobs and the large stock of low-cost, privately rented accommodation means there is a constant flow of people moving into and out of Blackpool. Poverty levels are high - Blackpool is the sixth poorest area in the country.

Interior designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has been helping create Blackpool's Illuminations for the past five years. He says that although Blackpool became a byword for blue collar binge drinking it was originally created by the Victorians as "a genteel, artistic resort".

"Blackpool's architecture is about edifying entertainment. It's incredibly elegant but also shows that it's a place where design can have a bit of a laugh."

In order to be recognised internationally he believes Blackpool must work very closely with Liverpool as a tourist destination - in the same way that Brighton is seen as a day trip or weekend away for people visiting London.

"Blackpool is maybe seen as a bit wild and dangerous for southerners - you won't see it featured in the Guardian - it's about eating fish and chips as you walk down the street. It has a real and palpable energy that's outside snobbery."

He thinks that in general Britain needs to rethink its image abroad.

"It isn't about blokes with bowler hats and umbrellas - it isn't bath buns and whippets, we need to provide a vision of Britain that is multi-hued. If tourists are going up to Edinburgh, why not stop off in Blackpool? These are not long distances for someone visiting from Asia or the US to travel."