Blackpool welcomes return of visitors but worries about summer

Maya Wolfe-Robinson
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“I felt like a kid going to Disneyland for the first time,” said Blake Lockwood, 22, describing the giddy journey to Blackpool pleasure beach from Leeds on Monday morning. “There was a buzz from everyone on the train,” added Brad Walker, 19.

The pair were up at 6am to prepare for their big day out, with a detailed itinerary of the park’s 11 rides planned, followed by food, tamer rides while lunch digests, and then a drink on a sunny pub terrace.

(March 8, 2021) Step 1, part 1

In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor.

(March 29, 2021) Step 1, part 2

In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed. The official stay at home order ends, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

(April 12, 2021) Step 2

In effect from 12 April, non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and some public buildings such as libraries and commercial art galleries can reopen. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants, but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening are settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will still apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open, but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities is also allowed, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

(May 17, 2021) Step 3

Again with the caveat "no earlier than 17 May", depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

(June 21, 2021) Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

Staff celebrating the family-owned theme park’s 125th anniversary were just as excited to greet customers again – many of whom were season ticket holders – as restrictions on nonessential businesses were eased after months of closure. Screaming rollercoaster riders whizzed past union jack flags at half mast in a nod to the declared period of national mourning for Prince Philip.

The pleasure beach remained open throughout the second world war and in the 19 years that the ride area manager Claire Birkett has worked at the park had only shut its doors in mid-season once, because of heavy snow. “It’s been very hard for us closing,” she said. “It’s just been one of the hardest years for everybody. And hopefully we can put a bit more smiles on everybody’s faces and get back to some kind of normality.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Alan Melling, 27, enjoying the rides with his two stepchildren and partner. “It’s just nice to get some fresh air and to do something active with the family.” He said they had jumped for joy when they saw the blue skies and sun. “It just makes it 10 times better a day when it’s like this.”

Masked shoppers
Shoppers take to the high street in Blackpool Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Beverley Naylor, 42, is planning to make the trip from Wigan to Blackpool every day this week. Her eight-year-old son had just taken his first ride on the thrilling Icon rollercoaster after they had dropped off homemade cupcakes for the customer service staff to welcome them back.

“This place is in our hearts and it’s in our souls,” Naylor said. “For me, it’s one of the best places on earth there is to be.”

One person hoping that other tourists felt the same was Rachel Jarvis, 55, who runs a hotel near the Winter Gardens. The seaside resort’s economy, heavily reliant on visitors, has been hit hard by the pandemic. According to a report published by Blackpool council, an estimate based on parking usage suggests that visitor numbers have fallen by almost half. Despite a surge when tourism reopened at the beginning of last summer, the report shows a steep decline, citing “confusing tier restrictions” that undermined consumer confidence from late September onwards.

People enjoy drinks outside
People enjoy drinks in the sunshine outside near the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Jarvis, enjoying a coffee on the terrace at the Velvet Coaster Wetherspoons pub, was clear about the impact. “Financially, we’ve lost our business this year again.” The hotel relies on visitors, many international, attending Blackpool’s usual schedule of events such as the World Dance Masters championships at the end of July and the Blackpool Air Show in August. The latter was cancelled last week for the second year running due to uncertainty around the rules on the staging of mass events, as was the Lytham music festival, set to be headlined by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross.

Jarvis described business owners such as herself as being in a state of “not knowing”, with several customers holding off booking until the rules around flights were clearer. The council is aware of the pressure on the tourism and hospitality businesses, announcing on Monday a £1m investment plan to help the resort recover from what it described as the “near-catastrophic effects” of the pandemic. It has also extended the annual illuminations season until January.

Related: England begins reopening as Covid lockdown eases – in pictures

Gillian Campbell, who heads tourism and culture for Blackpool council, acknowledged that there could be more cancelled events and that there were still “difficult months ahead”. Campbell said the investment would be focused on marketing and events to encourage tourists to come to Blackpool on holiday, not just while international travel is ruled out in 2021, but in future years too.

Mark Yates, who runs Brooks Collectibles, a vintage toy business, said he needs the plan to work. “It’s so nice to see and speak to people again, to have a laugh and ask how they’ve been through it all. But for us, it’s a weird one,” he said.

“In Blackpool a lot of our businesses are seasonal, so we know we’ve got until November this year to make up what we’ve lost or we’re gone. It’s a lot of pressure.”