St Nicholas Street in Scarborough neatly sums up two different faces of the resort. On one side there’s a boutique selling children’s clothes; on the other a swish new interiors store, specialising in lighting, is just about to open. However, in between a dress agency has closed down, a number of properties lie empty and at the far end is the Royal Hotel where the seagulls perched on window ledges would appear to outnumber guests.
Just opposite is the Town Hall where yesterday a 10 year strategy to boost the area’s tourism industry nudged another step forward. At its heart is a desire to restore Scarborough’s reputation as the Queen of Watering Places and turn those daytrippers to Whitby and Filey into overnight tourists. In short, it wants the East Coast, long known for its donkey rides, ice cream parlours and cockle stalls, to go a little more upmarket.
“Go upmarket? I thought we already were upmarket,” says Tony Peers. He’s just pulled up outside the Spa where since 2002 he has been running one of the last remaining summer shows in the country. A veteran of the entertainment business, he knows more than most how much the tourism industry has changed over the years. One of the old school comics from the variety era, the 67-year-old came to Scarborough back in the early 1980s for a six month spell running the entertainment programme at The Grand Hotel and never left.
“Sometimes with these kind of strategies I do wonder if there is a danger of going in search of something we already have,” he says. “There’s a natural beauty to Scarborough, we have wonderful buildings and the resort has always been more upmarket than say Blackpool which lit up people’s lives in neon at a time when for the working classes the world was pretty grey.
“Scarborough has never been brash and while it has been a tough few years for anyone running a business and no one would deny that the tourism market has changed massively in the last 30 years, we have to remember what people come to the seaside for.
“Yes, it’s not like the old days where families would come for a week, even a fortnight, but I think Scarborough is proof that with a little imagination it is possible to make the old work alongside the new. When I took over the summer, for example, there was a stigma attached to variety acts and some of them were passed their sell-by date. However, to have scrapped it altogether would have been to throw the baby out with the bath water.
“We got rid of the comics, concentrated instead on the song and the dance and it’s worked.
“It’s a formula which could work for the resort as a whole. Yes people want a nice to place to stay, but they also want to feel that they are experiencing a traditional resort. If Scarborough has one thing on its side, is its history.”
He has a point. It’s a few of centuries ago that people first began flocking to the resort. At first it was to take the newly discovered spa waters, later it was to try out the first wave of bathing machines and while the days when every guesthouse was full during the height of the season may have gone, evidence of that heyday is everywhere.
Even yesterday when the only people on the beach were a couple of dog walkers and a small group of surfers trying to make the most of the slightly choppy sea, the grey rain clouds couldn’t quite obscure the resort’s grand Edwardian and Victorian architecture.
It’s true that some of the hotels and guesthouses could do with a lick of paint and the seafront is the usual mix of amusement arcades, doughnut stalls and fish and chip shops, but the Crown Hotel which overlooks the South Bay has proved there is a market for seaside luxury and Scarborough has fared better than many resorts.
The borough’s visitor economy is currently worth £470m, it supports in excess of 15,000 jobs and 6.5m daytrips are made to the region each year. What the new tourism strategy hopes to do is convert those one day visits into two, three or four night stays.
“It’s not a matter of going upmarket,” says David Chance, the Scarborough Borough councillor responsible for tourism and culture. “However, it is a matter of meeting the aspirations of our visitors. Whilst the Borough of Scarborough still has many challenges to face, it equally has a lot to offer. We have 45 miles of beautiful heritage coastline, we have the North York Moors National Park with its stunning scenery and Scarborough, along with Whitby and Filey are really fabulous resorts, but if we standstill we will suffer.
“The undeniable facts are that visitors are becoming more discerning and competition for their attention is growing. If we don’t invest and raise the quality of our offering then we risk losing out on this lucrative share of the market.
“People today want modern, private facilities and they want first class indoor activities. If places like Scarborough are going to continue to thrive that’s what we need to provide, we have to look forwards not back.”
The council is already looking at building a new leisure village and water park on the former Weaponness coach and car park site, which would give Scarborough a new 2,000-capacity football ground. Slightly more contentious are plans to redevelop the Futurist Theatre. While campaigners are battling to save the tired seafront venue, which closed earlier this year, many within the town believe that the end is nigh.
“The open air theatre in the North Bay has shown what we can achieve,” says Cllr Chance. “We’ve had people travel from London to see some of the big shows and audience figures tell us that 26 per cent of those who go there come from areas not classed as ‘easy travelling’ distance from Scarborough.”
Next up will be Status Quo, Boyzone and Jessie J. The trio may not exactly fit the new ‘upmarket’ brief but ticket sales will determine success.
As part of the new tourism strategy, 170 individual businesses responded to a questionnaire. As well as asking if they approved of the proposed blueprint - 92.4 per cent said they did - it also asked if they had any other ideas to boost the number of visitors to the area.
One suggestion which came up a number of times was the possibility of turning the A64, which links the resort to York, into a dual carriageway. Anyone who has tried to get to Scarborough on a hot summer’s day will know the road, which currently only has short sections of dual carriageway, is invariably gridlocked. Widening the road would seem to make sense. Not to seasoned performer Tony Peers.
“That’s the worst thing you could possibly do. When they improved the road into Blackpool, you know what happened? Let me tell you, the number of people staying overnight plummeted. You have to remember that if you make a resort easier to get to, you also make it much easier to leave.”