Andrew Vine: Sunny outlook as seaside's old image is washed away
THERE was one unmistakeable conclusion to be drawn from the crowds thronging Whitby last week.
It is that Yorkshire stands on the brink of a new golden age of tourism, not only for our seaside resorts, the traditional magnets for visitors, but for attractions across the county.
A few miles south of the tourists strolling around Whitby harbour and climbing the 199 steps to the Abbey, Scarborough was also packed, its cricket festival only adding to the buzz of a resort in full swing for the remainder of summer.
These snapshots of a sunny day bringing the crowds out are part of a bigger picture that should give us cause for great optimism about the future of tourism in Yorkshire.
Across Britain, the bank holiday weekend is anticipated to have seen five million people opting for “staycations” – holidaying here instead of abroad – which is worth £1.25bn to the country’s economy.
Yorkshire’s share of that will be substantial, and there is every prospect of it growing because the evidence of our eyes and ears tells us that more people are coming here, and from farther afield, than in recent years.
That evidence was clear on the busy North Yorkshire Moors Railway steam train that took three of us to Whitby.
As we steamed through that glorious landscape, chatting to the people around us in the carriage, their conversation spoke of first-time visitors already determined to return.
A family of four from the United States. A group from Scotland. A couple from Hampshire and their family from Ireland. A wonderfully ebullient couple with five children from Wolverhampton.
All of them new to Yorkshire, and crucially, all of them charmed by it.
We saw most of them again on the train back to Pickering later that day, and when I asked how they had liked Whitby, all said they loved it and planned to come back to stay over for a few nights.
There is nothing quantifiable about conversations like this, no firm statistics to be drawn about the number of nights booked.
But they dovetail perfectly with the hard evidence we do have – that the number of overnight stays in Yorkshire by visitors grew by 20 per cent last year.
And another hint that suggests the fortunes of our tourist industry are on the up came when I booked a mid-September break to Scarborough.
It was harder finding a room than a couple of years ago since more hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are full. Good news for them, and equally good news for Yorkshire’s economy.
This growth in tourism has been a long time coming. The vigour of Welcome to Yorkshire in promoting the county is a key factor, as are the high-profile events it has brought, like Le Grand Départ and the Tour de Yorkshire, which have created a greater showcase than ever before.
Grimmer events have played their part as well. The spectre of terrorism abroad has made many Britons rethink their holiday plans and opt to stay in this country where they feel safer.
The tourist industry is also reaping the rewards of a transformation in the quality of accommodation for visitors.
My first proper job, more than 30 years ago, was in Bridlington, where a lot of the accommodation on offer appeared to have hardly changed since the end of the Second World War.
For every well-kept, modernised guest house there was another which was gloomy and outdated, with shared toilets and bathrooms where visitors were expected to queue up, towels draped over their arms, to wait their turn and hope the hot water hadn’t run out.
Some of the proprietors were as gloomy as their properties, still kicking out guests after breakfast and forbidding them to return until evening, even if the weather was atrocious.
And the food. Heaven preserve us. The memory of the smell of cabbage boiled into a dull green sludge that floated out of the windows of guest houses around where I lived still makes me shudder.
Unsurprisingly, bookings were plummeting as it dawned on people that for about the same cost, they could have a week in Spain with guaranteed sun, an ensuite bathroom, a balcony and paella served by smiling waiters.
It’s not like that now. Bed and breakfast has reinvented itself as welcoming boutique accommodation, comfortable and cosmopolitan homes from home that serve excellent food.
A category of accommodation that within fairly recent memory was in danger of consigning itself to the history books has been revived thanks to hard work and an appreciation that guests rightly demand high standards.
All of us who live in Yorkshire know how much we have to offer to visitors, whether on the coast, in the countryside or in the towns and cities.
The evidence of the crowds in Whitby and Scarborough, and on the platform waiting for a steam train, is that increasing numbers of people from elsewhere are discovering that too. And that’s as good for us as them.