Britain's faded Vegas gambles on casino salvation

Dazzling lights, an Eiffel Tower of its own and the constant “ker-ching” of slot machines make Blackpool Britain’s answer to Las Vegas.

But unlike the booming extravagant resort in the Nevada desert, Blackpool is fading fast, and the seaside town is gambling on a Vegas-style super-casino makeover to save it.

The brash northwest English resort was a magnet for Britons from 19th century Victorian times, a wondrous haven of glitz and excitement with its iconic tower, gilded ballrooms, funfairs, 10km illuminations strip, pier theatres and circus shows.

The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Charlie Chaplin lead the luminaries to have performed here.

The problem is that Blackpool is stuck in its golden past. 1930s trams rattle along the windswept seafront, the grand hotels are eerily empty, while donkey rides and ballroom dancing are lost on the iPod generation.

Britain is due to have one Vegas-esque super-casino in 2007 and Blackpool is desperate for the rights, part of a massive regeneration plan to prevent the town from becoming a museum to a bygone era of British seaside holidays.

“We do need it badly, there is no doubt whatsoever,” said Blackpool Mayor Philip Dunne.

“I’ll be the first to admit the town is looking a bit tired, it’s lost its sparkle,” the 63-year-old Irishman told Agence France Presse.

“It is a Victorian town, so it has never had a makeover in over 100 years.”

In the early 1980s, Blackpool was still booming. Then rising prosperity and cheap flights saw Britons packing their bags for sunny Spain.

Since 1987, visitor nights have slumped from 16-million to 10,5-million per year and the average annual hotel occupancy rate is just 22%.

Now the only people flocking to Blackpool are Poles seeking menial work and hen and stag parties trawling the otherwise bereft bars.

“It’s been the premier resort in Britain if not Europe for many years,” Dunne said.

“The market has dropped somewhat and the competition is very steep.
We can’t just sit back and let the drop in visitors carry on.”

Hence the desperation for a giant casino to bring a touch of Las Vegas glitz to the bracing Lancashire coast.

An independent panel will advise Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government on the super-casino’s location. Blackpool was the first to bid but the cities of Glasgow and Manchester have also mooted interest.

Blackpool Council chief executive Steve Weaver said the resort occupies a unique position in Britain’s national consciousness, but is “clearly trapped in a spiral of decline”.

“Time is running out for Blackpool,” he said, calling the casino plan the only “lifeline”.

It is hoped the casino could get visitor numbers back up to 20-million per year by 2010.

“There are simply no alternative areas of economic activity into which it can diversify,” he said.

Of course, all the traditional British seaside staples remain. Sticks of rock, candy floss, ice creams, donkey rides—though not on Fridays, their day off—one-arm bandits, saucy postcards, kiss-me-quick hats and foul weather.

The resort also boasts Europe’s tallest and fastest roller-coaster, and the Blackpool Illuminations—so impressive that Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi once tried to buy the lot.

The Blackpool Tower, completed in 1894, is a half-size 158-metre high take on the Eiffel Tower in Paris that was Britain’s tallest building until 1965.

But away from the seafront, the town is one of Britain’s most deprived and male life expectancy is the second lowest in the kingdom.

“Like any conurbation, you have the run-down areas where you wouldn’t put the dog in,” Dunne said.

“We will have a major makeover and put the sparkle back in the jewel that is Blackpool.

“Once it’s finished, it will be a vibrant town, a happy town and one with a bright future.”

Dunne can only hope that the casino gamble hits the jackpot. - AFP