Do too many tourists visit the Suffolk coast?
- Credit: Valerie Rozier
Throughout the pandemic, tourists kept flooding into Suffolk despite lockdowns.
Now, some people predict, the county could be in line for a surge in their numbers.
Tourists bring with them money and jobs. Around 10,000 people are employed in tourism in east Suffolk and, before the pandemic, it was bringing nearly £700million to the area's economy per year.
But they can also bring congestion and a loss of community as locals are priced out and move away.
Is the Suffolk coast nearing a tipping point where the negatives outweigh the positives?
We asked people who live and work in the area what they thought.
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Mark Thomas runs Emmett's – a 200-year-old food store in Peasenhall. He took over the business in 2000 and he says it has changed significantly since then.
"When I first bought the business it was very different to what it is today – it was much more focused on the village," he said.
Every morning in 2000, Mr Thomas explained, there would be a queue out the door of his shop of people wanting: "One slice of ham, a pint of milk, a cigarette – we sold them individually – and a newspaper".
Now the store, which is on the A1120 tourist route, relies more on passing trade, but he does not blame tourism alone.
He said: "Villages are much more transient now.
"People are travelling further and so they drive out of the village on a day trip. And then they go to the coast and they come past my shop."
He also cited car ownership and the number of supermarkets as driving the changes in his business and east Suffolk since 2000.
"Time doesn't stand still," he said. "The supermarkets were coming. People have more cars nowadays. There's no real loyalty anymore, a lot of retail is impulse.
"There's still an element of local, but people also come from Cambridge or from the Midlands or wherever.
"They're on holiday and they have to come past my shop because we're on an old Roman crossroads, and so you set it up to appeal to people.
"So I welcome tourists and I welcome local people."
The local councillor
David Beavan, Liberal Democrat town and district councillor for Southwold, has long been outspoken about the number of second homes in the seaside town and believes that the area is in danger of losing its appeal to tourists.
He said: "I'm definitely not against tourists, because they bring us lots of money in, but I want there to be a living community here as well.
"There is an established community of fishermen and farmers and local people who have a life here. And that's what attracts people to the area. If it was just a caravan park, there wouldn't be so many people wanting to come here.
"For 150 years, people have been coming to the Suffolk coast and there has been a local community here and we've got along fine. But now – with the housing situation as it is – it means that now, there is no room at all for a local community.
"And I think that is what's going to destroy tourism in the end.
"People won't want to come here if it's just a Disney World tourist park. With no genuine community – you'd lose a lot of stuff. You'd lose the atmosphere in the pubs and the quirkiness of some of our seaside towns."
Mr Beavan, who worked as a windsurfing teacher, said: "We don't want to get rid of tourists. We want them but we just want to keep a community here."
Nick Attfield is the director of properties for Adnams, overseeing the brewery's hotels, pubs and shops across the county.
He said he feels buoyant about tourism in the county but is aware of the danger of the area becoming too commercialised.
He said: "I think there's real interest in Suffolk and I think the Suffolk vibe fits in with what a lot of people are after at the moment.
"It feels authentic, it feels genuine, it feels natural round here. I think people have cottoned on to that fact.
"It's not just the coastal towns of Soutwold and Aldeburgh or the villages of Walberswick and Thorpeness. People are realising how lovely Halesworth, Woodbridge, Beccles etc are and that there is lots going on.
"We've moved away from agriculture and it now feels like we are exploiting properly and wisely our tourism economy – let's just hope it doesn't go too far.
"You haven't got that homogeneity, that sort of grip on the market [like in some parts of Devon or Cornwall]. There's a massive tail of lovely, independent, small businesses that operate across Suffolk. And that gives it character, difference, passion, and attention to customer service because you've got to compete. They're very personal businesses.
"As long as we don't become sort of muddled modern white blocks everywhere, because then we'd lose our unique selling point – that sort of genuine, authentic feel that we still have.
"As long as our planners are firm on the right kind of building projects, extensions and new builds or what have you, then we won't lose that special USP.
The tourism boss
Annie Willey manages The Suffolk Coast destination marketing organisation which is responsible for helping to promote the area to tourists.
She said 'overtourism' was something that all destinations were trying to avoid but, she argued, it is not yet a problem for the Suffolk coast.
"It's a concern for any area that wants to responsibly manage itself in terms of the environment, the landscape, the local community, and local businesses," she said.
"It's a really tricky one, and there's no easy answer. But there are things that can be done."
The basis of these counter-measures lies in "encouraging people to visit responsibly" in order to create a better place for people to both live and visit.
In the case of the Suffolk coast, this means making sure people visit areas that are not typical tourist hotspots in the high season.
She said: "In those six weeks, through July and August, there are honeypot locations that can feel overcrowded at times.
"But equally, there are a lot of areas within the Suffolk coast – with it being such a large geographical area – that we can encourage people to find out about and to spread people away from those honeypot locations."
She said this might mean encouraging people to visit Felixstowe's pier rather than Southwold's, or to make a stop at St Peter's Brewery rather than Adnams'.
One tool that can be used to do this is advertising on social media.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the destination marketing organisation would work out where was getting too busy, and advertise other locations in the county to preserve social distancing.
Something similar is planned for this year to stop areas from feeling overcrowded.
"We are super sensitive to what's going on in the really busy times," she said. "So we will be actively pushing other locations and destinations during those times to try and spread the number of people and to give them ideas and inspiration for other areas to go to."
Another, more long term, fix is targeted investment in other towns in the area.
East Suffolk Council is responsible for applying for Seaside and Blue Flag awards for beaches in the area – including one each in Felixstowe and Lowestoft.
In addition, the council has invested in several million-pound-plus schemes trying enhance tourism in Lowestoft and Felixstowe in particular.
These include the East Point Pavilion and the Jubilee Parade beach hut development in Lowestoft, along with the Kitchen @ Felixstowe and Beach Village and Activity Park in Felixstowe.
Recurring projects such as the First Light Festival in Lowestoft and the Felixstowe carnival are funded by the council, in part in an attempt to bring more people to the towns.
Ms Willey said: "Other destinations are becoming better known and better placed. Everyone always harps on about Aldeburgh and Southwold.
"But there is a lot being done to spread the geography of those tourists, and it is starting it is happening."
According to Ms Willey, Felixstowe and Lowestoft are frequently among the most searched for places on the organisation's website – an indication more tourists are starting to view them as attractive destinations.