The real secret behind Margate’s revival isn’t so much the restored Dreamland amusement park, but the trains. A decade ago, it gained high-speed, InterCity-like trains to St Pancras, putting it within 90 minutes of London.
Before the trains get to Margate they stop in Whitstable, which I remember as a bit of a hole in the 1970s. I went back recently and couldn’t believe how horrible the beach is — black sludge, sharp stones and shells. But then I got to the quayside and it was all posh seafood restaurants.
Accessibility as much as native charm has made Whitstable one of the most remarkable turnaround stories of any seaside town over the past 20 years. It is close enough to London to have become a weekend destination for the middle classes who can slurp their oysters while sending Barnaby and Chloe to run around on the black sludge in their wetsuits. A fast train to London is the facility that Hastings — more attractive than Whitstable in many respects — lacks, which is why regeneration there lags some way behind.
The secret behind Brighton, too, lies in its trains. Why of all seaside resorts has it seen a boom in house prices? It can’t be because of its beach, which is just a steep pile of pebbles. But it is commutable to London. If you really want lasting regeneration it isn’t just day-trippers you need — but high-spending residents, and preferably some business investment.
Brighton and Bournemouth are not especially popular among tourists — they are a lowly 12th and 13th respectively in the list of towns most visited by British holidaymakers. But no one worries about their economies because they have a commercial life of their own, and attract wealthy residents from elsewhere. On the other hand, those resorts which attract the most day-trippers are among the most depressed. The top three seaside resorts in terms of visitors are Scarborough (1.28 million holiday visits in 2018), Blackpool (1.05 million) and Skegness (633,000). They are followed by Torbay (574,000) and Newquay (521,000). These are all figures for UK-based holidaymakers.
It is remarkable how few international tourists, by contrast, seem to be attracted by our seaside towns. Among the top 20 British destinations visited by foreign tourists, only Brighton (at number ten) makes it into the top 20.
From all this, a picture emerges of just what it takes to create a successful seaside town. It helps either to be too small to have attracted benefit-claimants to its lodging houses, or large enough to act as a regional centre — like Brighton and Bournemouth. But if your seaside town is not in that category? You don’t need day-trippers, and there is little point in trying to attract international tourists because they are not interested in cold, grey English tidal waters. You don’t necessarily need much of a beach, either — indeed, some might see the lack of sand as a good thing, in that it helps deter grockles. An art gallery might help, but better still are fancy restaurants serving local seafood.
On top of that, you want a fast train connection to London. Over the next few years the real growth in UK tourism is likely to be from high-income, environmentally aware people embarrassed about flying and looking to take breaks in Britain, preferably by rail. Then again, if you are especially concerned about climate change, you might be a little shy about investing in coastal property.