Blackpool boom and bust
Gambling in a family resort? England's Golden Mile takes a flutter on its reputation
Rosemarie Devlin potters around her small Blackpool guest house. "I'll put you in a double room, dear. You're the only guest tonight, so that'll be fine." I notice a Cliff Richard calendar on the wall. In a corner of the room is a fruit machine that looks as though it hasn't seen any action in years.
"Do you play at all?" I ask, indicating the fruit machine with a tilt of my head. "No, never, I hate the things. The guests sometimes play, though. That's why it's there." "Maybe a sign of things to come?" I venture. There is no answer from Rosemarie.
For Blackpool, everything points to change. Although last month its tourist information centre received more inquiries than ever before, the number of visitors to the seaside resort has halved in the past decade to ten million. The number of hotels has fallen by 30 per cent since 1996 and the city is the 32nd most deprived area of the UK.
Blackpool's saviour comes as the result of the government's decision in March to ease the gambling restrictions that have been in place since the 1960s. Jackpot limits will be abolished, rules governing the areas where casinos can open will be relaxed and casinos will no longer be clubs requiring a member to join 24 hours before they can gamble. This clears the way for the construction of giant casino-hotel complexes which, it is hoped, will provide the kiss of life to some of England's ailing seaside resorts. Developers say that as well as reviving Blackpool's economy through increased visitor numbers, the change in law will create up to 25,000 new jobs.
Marc Etches, managing director of Leisure Parcs, the company that owns Blackpool Tower, also believes that the hotel-casino complexes will revive the resort's traditional image, but adds: "Blackpool should be a family resort as it always used to be." Peter Moore, chairman of Blackpool's Regeneration Masterplan, claims that casino complexes "will be a powerful cornerstone to a grand design upon which Blackpool will build". Unsurprisingly, the casino operators and leisure companies like the sound of that.
But many are concerned that Blackpool will lose its reputation as a family resort. David Gee, from the Blackpool Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, is one voice out of many. "Gambling and families do not go together," he argues. Indeed, restrictions on children's gambling will remain firmly in place. Teenagers will face tighter restrictions on amusement arcades, with fruit machines in pubs being out of bounds.
I check out one of the two casinos. Castle Casino, perched at the north end of the beach, with the famous tower looming over it, looks from the outside like a miniature version of Disney's Magic Kingdom. Inside is a different story. I sit at the bar, order a beer and observe the action. Middle-aged couples and elderly men slump around the green baize, presumably hard-earned cash dwindling away.
I approach a blackjack table and play a few hands. "Awful cards the whole night," says a sixtysomething with a whiff of alcohol about him. "I wouldn't bother if I were you." I ignore his advice and promptly lose my money.
On the way back to my guest house, the taxi driver tells me of his own concerns. He doesn't seem convinced by the regeneration plans, either. "I just question who the casinos will help. I have friends who run small amusement arcades and I don't see how they'll survive. I'm sure it will be great for the developers, but what about the arcades and bingo halls we already have?" And what, too, of the small- to medium-sized guest houses and hotels? What about Rosemarie?
For the casino operators, the mantra is simple: if you build it, they will come. Talk is of up to six casino-hotels being constructed along the Golden Mile. Each would have 1,000 bedrooms, 3,000 slot machines and 80 gaming tables. Although the initial five-star complexes would not compete with Blackpool's small and medium-sized hotels and guest houses, it may well be the thin end of the wedge.
In Las Vegas and Atlantic City, hotels are subsidised by the casinos to which they are attached. The result is that it can be as cheap, if not cheaper, to stay in a four-star hotel as it is to stay in the bed and breakfast down the road. The future for small- to medium-sized businesses, for family-run guest houses and hotels, looks bleak.
I ask Rosemarie about the Blackpool she's worked in for so many years. "I've loved being in this business," she tells me. "We don't have as many visitors as in the past, but people still come back every year, you know, wearing their 'I love Blackpool' hats. Every night in the summer, there are stag nights and hen nights, thousands of people having a great time. The best thing about running a small place like this is all the people you meet. I don't run the grandest place, but people come because it's what they can afford."
Before I leave, I plug in the fruit machine and insert a 20-pence piece. Rosemarie comes downstairs just as I hit spin and laugh with glee as the board lights up. "I can't believe you like those things." I can hear the disappointment in her voice.