Brits Urged To Take Vacations At Home

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British Prime Minister David Cameron is currently vacationing with his family in the seaside county of Cornwall in southwest England. The prime minister recently urged fellow U.K. citizens to take their summer holiday at home and re-discover the country's seacoast resorts. And more of them are: British tourism offices say domestic tourism is up again this year after seeing an 18 percent boost last year. Officials now hope the "staycation" trend helps rejuvenate some of England's economically downtrodden coastal towns. But as Eric Westervelt reports, many towns have yet to reap any reward.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Austerity is starting to bite in Britain. So the government there is urging its citizens to take staycations, to stay in the U.K., and especially to re-discover their own country's seacoast resorts. The idea is to boost local economies of some depressed coastal towns. But the charms of some of them may elude people used to vacations in the Mediterranean.

NPR's Eric Westervelt sent this report from a seaside town on the southeast coast of England.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Occasional sun pokes through the gray cloud cover on Margate's windy beach as Dicken Trevitt(ph) and his young son Kelsey(ph) dig a formidable moat. Kelsey is happy. The sandcastle perimeter is secure. Nearby, a beach shed sells jellied eels and other uniquely British seafood delights. Trevitt might have jumped on a discount airline and taken his family to sunny Spain. But with the recession and today's flying hassles, he says his family prefers to stick close to home.

Mr. DICKEN TREVITT: You know what you're getting in the U.K. You hear so many horror stories of people going abroad and, you know, hotels which are building sites and whatever. You know what you're getting in this country. And at the end of the day, if we don't like it, we're only two hours away from home.

WESTERVELT: You know what you're getting even if it's cold and windy and rainy?

TREVITT: I don't mind that. We don't mind that. We've got the beach. And we got a hot tub in the back garden where we're staying at the moment. So, you know, what more can we want? Kids love it.

WESTERVELT: While some coastal areas, such as Cornwall, attract A-list celebrities and wealthy Brits, towns such as Margate, Scarborough and Hastings have a long way to go. It's the heart of August, and Margate's sprawling beach is largely empty this day. Since the rise of discount airfares in the late 1960s, some British seaside resorts have gone from charmingly faded to decayed and depressing with enduring problems of joblessness, petty crime, drug and alcohol abuse.

Today, coastal towns are trying to change all that. Margate is pinning its hopes on a new contemporary art gallery - set to open next spring - named after British artist JMW Turner, who painted seascapes in the area in the late 19th century.

Just across the street from the seaside gallery construction site, weeds grow out of the window sills of a boarded up old hotel.

Up the road, Jane Bishop hopes the Turner gallery kick-starts Margate's regeneration. She owns the Walpole Bay hotel, built in 1914. Today, it's a kind of living museum to the British seacoast's heyday. The 83-year-old elevator still works like a charm.

Ms. JANE BISHOP (Owner, Walpole Bay Hotel) Here she comes. And the lift serves all five floors, and it's 1927 original trellis gated Otis lift.

Shall we go up?

WESTERVELT: The place is stuffed with late Victorian and early 20th-century antiques and knickknacks from elegant dinnerware to vaguely creepy porcelain dolls and mannequins dressed in period clothing. There are also black-and-white pictures of Margate in the 1930s, jammed with thousands of vacationers.

Ms. BISHOP: But look at the people on that beach.

WESTERVELT: Oh.

Ms. BISHOP: And that's the beach of my ambition. We're going to bring them all back. Not - no particular people, but we just want to fill the beaches.

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WESTERVELT: The Walpole just held a Burlesque on the Beach festival with performances and classes in old-style striptease, 1920s sound, vintage hair and makeup and pastie making. Local burlesque maven Tootsie Sugar, aka Caroline Edwards, wears an antique black corset. Tootsie organized the burlesque fest.

Ms. TOOTSIE SUGAR (Burlesque Instructor, Top Hat & Cane): It's events like this that are bringing more and more people into the towns, and more and more people are staying. But it's just getting enough so that they all come. And because people aren't going away abroad, they got to go somewhere.

WESTERVELT: But some wonder if kitschy nostalgia for a long-gone era is a viable business plan or realistic foundation for revival of a coastal community where the number of people getting jobless benefits is nearly four times the national average.

Mr. TRAVIS ELBOROUGH (Author, "Wish You Were Here: England on Sea"): I mean, the seaside resort, for many English people, is still emblematic of sort of decay.

WESTERVELT: Travis Elborough is the author of the just-published "Wish You Were Here: England on Sea." He says more and more Britons are growing bored with endless Spanish sun and cheap airfares and are seeing new potential in England's worn-out relics.

Mr. ELBOROUGH: Some of these resorts do look tatty, which is also partly the reason why they're ripe for gentrification, because they've sort of fallen down in a way that urban areas have, so they're kind of ripe for colonization and recovery. And let's remember also, in a way, that there is a certain romance in sort of decay and that kind of fading glamour as well.

WESTERVELT: Indeed, at the Walpole Bay Hotel, owner Jane Bishop says she's seen a 120-percent increase in day visitors this summer, as the staycation trend continues. But too few people, she says, are staying the night.

Ms. BISHOP: It's going to take years, Eric. Nobody has rose-colored spectacles. It is going to take years before the town's as happy and as healthy as it used to be. But it's happening.

WESTERVELT: Then Bishop has to run. A group of day-trippers wants a hotel tour, and the local lawn bowling league - elderly men and women dressed in crisp, all-white uniforms - are here for their halftime tea break.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Margate.

(Soundbite of music)

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