Seaside resorts need not be a washout off season, says Victoria McKee. Educational holidays can boost business all year.
Tourism centres are turning their attentions to home-grown holiday-makers after the post-September 11 slump in international travel. And what better way than to combine a holiday with the government's education, education, education mantra?
While educational and cultural organisations in the United States have led the way in what is being coined "intellectual tourism", Britain appears to be catching up fast. Remote resort areas in the US and the United Kingdom have been turning themselves into year-round communities with a tourism industry based as much on educational pursuits as on the more traditional holiday ones of beach or theme park.
Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and St Ives in Cornwall, for example, have the distinction of being on a spit of land surrounded by some of the most beautiful harbour, bay and open-sea beaches in the world, and both are fishing villages that have long been the resort of choice for artists and free spirits.
They are at the forefront of the new wave of intellectual tourism. "The idea is to use the unused infrastructure of these areas off season, to bring more people into the area, more heads to beds, to keep businesses open longer - but also to bring the sort of people here who can contribute to the area's cultural history and future," says Michael Hattersley, executive director of the public and private-funded Campus Provincetown (CP) programme, which has been transforming Cape Cod into a year-round economy.
"You can stay pretty busy (in the winter) with off-season film and poetry festivals, winter courses and fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC). The Provincetown Theatre Company runs a full off-season schedule now, and half-a-dozen institutions offer courses that can be taken for credit or certification - or not. You can come out here and take a full semester of college courses and although you can't yet get a complete university degree here, in my dreams you will soon," he says. The programme is contacting higher education institutions such as Boston-based Emerson College as part of this initiative.
The CP approach is collaborative: the FAWC has joined with the Center for Coastal Studies, a world-class marine institute, Cape Cod Community College, civic partners such as the Chamber of Commerce and the local school system, the Business Guild representing the hospitality industry, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the national park service to encourage more organisations to offer incentives to the intellectual tourist. Theatres such as the Wellfleet Harbour Actors Theatre are investing in year-round buildings and programmes, and a disused military base in Truro, Cape Cod, has been proposed as a year-round cultural centre.
Hattersley says: "We believe that intellectual tourism is the way ahead more than the kind of Coca-Cola and T-shirt tourism we have known. Not only is it the best bet to preserve our history, culture and environment, but the synergy that can happen is producing some astonishing results in cross-fertilisation: people come to study painting and end up acting in a play or taking a college credit course in environmental studies for the first time. People come for a few weeks and decide to come back - or stay year round." This could stop the economy from fluctuating so wildly, with up to 30,000 summer residents and previously some 4,000 in the winter.
"We now don't have trouble keeping top-flight people around here," says Hattersley, a poet who has a doctorate from Yale University in English literature and was a professor at Harvard Business School for many years. Hunter O'Hanian, a lawyer who heads the FAWC, which offers courses by Pulitzer prizewinners such as Michael Cunningham, agrees. "It's getting easier to attract celebrity teachers out of season."
And because people are staying home since September 11, business is growing. The FAWC's fall semester courses have risen from fewer than 800 to more than 1,100 students in the past year.
"Beauty spots such as this are becoming educational and cultural magnets," Hattersley says. "They are reaching a critical mass that will let the community take on a cultural and economic viability of its own."
Britain too is moving into intellectual tourism. When the countryside was closed due to foot-and-mouth disease this year, it became obvious that remote beauty spots needed more than teashops and quaint hostelries to sustain them. While coastal paths and country pursuits around it were closed off, St Ives in Cornwall proved one of the most popular destinations because of its cultural and educational attractions. Since the Tate Gallery opened its Tate St Ives in 1993, the community has gone from strength to strength and tourism has become far less seasonal. More restaurants and hotels stay open all year, and the previously traditional seaside cafes are being replaced by slick, state-of-the-art wine bars and restaurants.
"The Tate St Ives now gets 200,000 visitors a year - three times the number anticipated when it opened," reports its press officer Ina Cole. "The influx of that many visitors in a town of only about 10,000 has had a massive impact on the regeneration of Cornwall as a whole, helping to open the way for other initiatives such as the Eden Project and a planned outpost for the national maritime museum. We have a wide outreach programme whereby schools and colleges regularly visit the gallery and incorporate elements of their visit into their teaching programmes."
Nearby Falmouth is also a rich year-round cultural and educational hub, with its art and marine colleges at the centre.
"Cultural and educational tourism is the way forward," Cole asserts. "The heyday of the British seaside resort as such is long over: what is needed now is an additional component, something extraordinary to stimulate the imagination and the intellect. This is precisely what St Ives has - and much of it was directly inspired by the natural environment that so many of its tourists now enjoy year round."