Observer column: 20 November 2015
Hastings, Famously Popular
With Hastings Old Town winning the Academy of Urbanism 'Great Neighbourhood' award this year, and Hastings & St Leonards runners-up for the 'Great Town' award last year, there are plenty of good reasons for people to visit us.
Tourism is a major part of the local economy, worth over £260m a year, with 5,400 local jobs depending on it. But for many years, tourism declined in Hastings. Like many seaside towns, we were seen as old-fashioned and down-at-heel, with little new to offer. Until the end of the last decade, visitor spending continued to shrink. But since then, we've seen a change, with total income from tourism increasing by around 20%. Spending by overnight visitors increased by 35%, three times the national average. Last year, the total number of tourist visitors, at 3.2 million, was up by 3% on 2013, compared with an overall 10% fall for the south east region. The number of our overseas tourists is also increasing, by 7% over the same period, again beating national and regional trends.
But it's not surprising that Hastings is getting more popular. We're gaining an enviable reputation as the town where the festivals never stop, from the International Piano Concerto Competition and Fat Tuesday in February through to the Herring Fair and Storytelling Festival in November. And our reputation for creative culture is growing too, with so many visual and performing artists making their homes here, and dozens of articles in tourism and style magazines promoting the town as a new centre for cultural creativity, good food, and eclectic entertainment. From the 1,000-year-old fishery to the Jerwood Gallery, it's an enticing mix of the old and new.
All this positive publicity is making Hastings a more attractive place to live, too. In St Leonards especially, estate agents will tell you that they rarely put houses on the market now - they're snapped up by Londoners wanting to relocate here. The dramatic increase in average earnings in the borough (22% over the last five years, compared with 6% in East Sussex overall) probably has as much to do with wealthier people moving in as it does with local people getting paid more. That's something we need to keep an eye on - more on that in future columns.
Next year, the pier will reopen, as will the new international skateboard arena at White Rock Baths, along with a refurbished Bottle Alley and other promenade improvements. And we're hosting ROOT1066, a major creative arts festival to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, as well as heritage-based events during Hastings Week itself. It'll be a big year, so we'll have to make sure that the impact of ROOT1066 in particular is lasting, establishing Hastings as an internationally-recognised centre for creative culture.
And in the longer term, regenerating the White Rock area and redeveloping West Marina to create a 'destination' will help to extend the tourism appeal from the eastern end, right along the seafront. And I've not forgotten the 'mini-tram' proposal - some kind of seafront transport link is going to be essential to bring all these attractions together and make them accessible.
So Hastings is back on the map as a significant cultural and tourism destination. But we can't be complacent - we need to make sure it gets even better.