Brex on the beach: UK seaside revival gives hope to Leave voters

GREAT YARMOUTH — In Britain’s Brexit-voting seaside towns the fallout from the global pandemic is playing right into Boris Johnson’s hands.

Among the business owners finally removing shutters from cafes and attractions along the promenade in the east coast seaside town of Great Yarmouth on Wednesday morning, there was a cautious mood of optimism. And there were warm words for the Brexit-backing British prime minister.

The U.K. government is preparing to unveil what is expected to be a limited blueprint for the resumption of overseas travel on Friday, with laborious testing and quarantine rules likely to be required for travel to most parts of the world. That means the town’s small tourism businesses are eyeing the revival of the great British seaside holiday.

The potential boost to both the local economy and sense of pride, which many focus groups show Leave voters hankered for in the 2016 European Union referendum, could bring electoral benefits to Boris Johnson.

“I’m feeling optimistic because of the travel ban to Europe,” Mark Kaley, the 59-year-old owner of Anchor Gardens cafe, and a Johnson fan, said. “I’m hoping it won’t just be this summer, but we’ll get a legacy in years to come of people coming to the British seaside for the first time and actually enjoying it, and thinking, ‘Why go abroad when we’ve got everything on our doorstep?'”

The beach in the coastal village of Happisburgh in Great Yarmouth | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Kaley, a Brexit supporter like many in the town — it had the fifth highest proportion of Brexit voters in the country — cites the more sluggish vaccination program in some European countries as a reason “cautious” holidaymakers might choose Britain over Benidorm.

“I think the boost from the vaccine program has also increased people’s belief in Brexit, that we’re a country that can do it without Europe,” he said. “I get a feeling there’s a lot of patriotism around, which is a bit Brexit, but also with the vaccine. I think there’s getting [to be] a pride in Britain again.”

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” people are linking the U.K.’s vaccine rollout to Brexit, Duncan Baker, the Conservative MP for the neighboring North Norfolk constituency, said.

Sense of pride

The decline of the British seaside holiday in the 1960s, as cheap flights allowed families to jet off to sunnier climes in Spain, Greece and Portugal, hit formerly booming seaside holiday destinations like Great Yarmouth, Blackpool, Cleethorpes and Skegness hard.

Successive governments failed to solve systemic economic problems and, in the decade after the financial crash in 2008, half of the country’s coastal towns saw a decline in employment, compared with 37 percent of noncoastal towns, according to a study published last year. The vast majority of communities living along England’s coastline voted to leave the European Union in 2016 — a cause championed by Johnson, who then won a landslide parliamentary victory in 2019.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing governments to bring in sweeping travel restrictions, there are hopes of a revival in the domestic tourism market. Owners of guesthouses, holiday camps, holiday parks and camping parks in Great Yarmouth say they are fully booked up for this summer, Graham Plant, a Great Yarmouth borough councilor, said. Baker agreed his tourism businesses had seen a “huge upsurge” in visitors coming to his constituency amid low COVID-19 rates and its proximity to London.

James Johnson, a former No. 10 pollster under Theresa May who has now set up his own company, said the loss of a “spirit of the town” feeling had been a key reason for people to vote for Brexit, and move away from Labour toward the Tories in recent years. A holiday park revival could play well with those looking back to the “good old days.”

Regent Road in Great Yarmouth | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Big name resorts like Pontins and Butlins are often “wedded to people’s perception of their community,” he said. “People talk about them as local employers, but there is also a slight sense of pride, because of that feeling and image of tourists coming from around the U.K. to those places in their heyday, is seen as a positive.”

A VisitBritain survey in mid-April presents a more cautious picture.

It suggests that between now and the end of the year, only about half of U.K. adults intend to take more or about the same number of domestic short breaks (51 percent) compared with normal, with respondents citing concerns that there could be fewer opportunities to eat and drink out in the spring. Four in 10 were still worried about the risks of catching COVID in the summer, with concern about personal finances also cited. The same survey suggests about 4 in 10 people expect to take fewer overseas trips this year compared with normal.

But countryside, village and traditional seaside town holidays come out on top as the destination of choice for those who do plan spring or summer overnight trips, according to the survey.

Rishi Riches

While pride of place is important for many voters, cold hard economics are still on lawmakers’ and locals’ minds.

Robert Goodwill, the Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, two other big east coast seaside resorts, said there were hopes of a “boom year, weather permitting” in his part of North Yorkshire.

He acknowledged it may well provide a political boost. “A person with a job is more likely to vote for the party in power than a person who’s unemployed,” he said.

The beach in Scarborough, northeast England | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Billions of pounds of public spending stumped up by the U.K. Treasury in tax relief, wages and grants has also softened the impact of three COVID lockdowns, which put a halt to trade for many months.

“Without those things, we would definitely have been in a lot worse position than we are now,” Michael Cole, head of engineering at the Joyland fun park in Great Yarmouth, said.

“People think it could have been a lot worse than it has been because the government has helped,” added Billy Ellis, a 23-year-old who co-owns the Beach House Cafe in Great Yarmouth with his dad.

But Plant, the Conservative councilor, said the economic revival would not just come from tourism, pointing to multimillion-pound investment projects in the area, including plans for a new bridge, part-funded by the central government.

“Tourism is very important, but obviously, we’re trying to keep all the other irons in the fire as well,” he said.

Pete Waters, executive director of local tourism business group Visit East of England, also cautioned that there needs to be something to offer tourists beyond the summer season.

“There may well be a Great British seaside renaissance for a couple of years, particularly while going abroad is difficult and we have a captive audience, but what those Brexit-voting coastal towns have got to do is change their narrative and their offer,” he said. “If they persist with ‘the season’ then they’ll continue to have low-paid, low-skilled, seasonal jobs.”

What about the fish?

While the economic prospects of these Brexit-voting towns may be potentially rosy in the short term, Johnson’s Brexit fishing deal could yet be his undoing in coastal communities, says June Mummery, the managing director of BFP Eastern Ltd, a fish-market auctioneer based 20 miles south of Yarmouth in the Suffolk town of Lowestoft.

Johnson made a high-profile visit to the former Brexit Party MEP’s business during the 2016 referendum campaign, where he declared “they’re pinching our fish” as he posed for photos while holding a live lobster.

Boris Johnson in Lowestoft, in 2016 | EFE via EPA

“Brexit was a golden opportunity to rebuild these deprived areas, creating thousands of jobs,” Mummery said. “The deal that he’s done, I personally think will go down in history as one of the worst deals that has ever come out of this country.”

If a tourism boom ups support for Johnson, Mummery says the prime minister will have “got himself off the hook for now,” but she doesn’t believe what is a bad deal for her industry will be forgotten.

“All of a sudden you will get people saying, ‘Well, did we take our fishing waters back?'”

And the sun?

In all the talk of the U.K. seaside holiday revival, from lawmakers to business owners, there is one great very British preoccupation.

“Weather plays an important part. If you get great weather this summer, then that will work. People will remember a good hot summer holiday in Britain, and forget about Spain,” said Kaley, the cafe owner.

For political strategists, that one is sadly out of their control.



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