A history of Jersey tourism after World War Two
By Tony Bellows, first published on La Société Jersiaise members pages
The years immediately following the war saw an upsurge in Jersey's tourism industry. Many holiday makers were looking for a relatively cheap holiday, with the same currency and language, plenty of sun and sand, and Jersey has a good deal to offer them.
Unlike in the UK, there was no purchase tax, and later no VAT, and consequently for some time a number of luxury items had a market price differential from their UK counterparts. Products such as jewellery, cosmetics and perfumery, electrical goods, and especially alcoholic drinks and tobacco goods were all cheap and plentiful. Alongside the luxury market, an increasing number of gift shops began to open in St Helier, selling cheap plastic goods and souvenirs. Hire cars were also inexpensive, and petrol prices markedly lower than the UK to the end of the 1970s.
Until the 1980s, the cost of air and sea travel was not excessive compared to other destinations, and the majority of tourists was still willing to look upon sea travel as a viable means of reaching a holiday destination.
This was a time when hoteliers borrowed and expanded their properties, while at the other end of the scale the smaller town dwellings, still with four or five rooms for sleepers, were converted into guest houses. Holiday villages and holiday camps also came to Jersey, catering for the same market as their parent groups in the UK.
Hotels provided their guests with cabaret-style entertainment; for the guest house tourist or the camper, a number of venues and nightspots provided the same kind of cabaret, usually a mixture of comedy, song and dance. The Opera House saw summer shows, usually a comedy or farce, pleasing the crowds.
Newly opening 'bistros' provided inexpensive meals in less formal surroundings than the older restaurants, although these still prospered.
These attractions added value to a holiday of sea, sun and sand. And there were many local attractions with the Island's historical heritage, especially with its castles and the legacy of the German Occupation, and the world-famous Jersey Zoo. Most especially, there was the fabulous Jersey battle of flowers, with its brightly flowered carnival floats, 'Miss Battle', and a well-know celebrity brought over from the UK. 'Let's come to Jersey' warbled the singer on a record produced and sold locally in the 1970s, and with the added bonus of television coverage on the fictional 'Bergerac' set and filmed in Jersey, many tourists did just that.
Start of decline
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the decline in tourism began, although a significant pointer would be the Seymour hotel groups plans for a large new hotel at Portelet in the 1980s. The was a large groundswell of local feeling that this would have a detrimental visual impact upon Portelet bay, but eventually planning permission was granted. By that time, however, the Seymour group had decided that the decline in the tourism market meant that the project was no longer viable, and decided not to go ahead with the building. In part, this can be seen as a consequence of the changing tourism market. Sea travel was not as popular, as lower air flights and package tour operators had opened up the continental market, and soon even further afield, as Laker Airlines provided low cost flights to America.
By the 1990s, there was a market decline in sea travel, and the UK route was no longer viable for two competing companies, and only Condor ferries remained. In an attempt to boost travellers, faster vessels, the so-called 'wave piercers' were brought into play, with the facility to take cars on a roll-on, roll-off basis; unfortunately, they were subject to the vagaries of local sea conditions, and could not sail in bad weather. The frequent cancellations and re-scheduling meant that a growing number holiday makers became disgruntled with the service, and their holiday memories of Jersey were not happy ones. Eventually, the newly formed Jersey Transport Authority was forced to take action, and putting the new contract out to tender ensured that Condor entered into a service level agreement; this involved reinstating one slow ferry service to provide a poor weather contingency. The year 2002 saw the Condor group up for sale to any prospective buyer.
There was also a steady decline in air travel as Jersey found it increasingly difficult to compete with low-cost package tours to destinations which also cost less in situ, owing to a strong pound. As passenger numbers declined, the airlines increased fares to maintain a profit, and this in turn exacerbated the fall in numbers. In addition, the States were concerned to preserve all-year services from the island, and so deliberately excluded cheap seasonal only charter airlines on any routes.
The tourist in the 1990s was looking for a very different kind of holiday from that of the 1950s. Sea, sand and sun, all still featured, but the tourist was looking for better value for money, more aware of the advantages of shopping around, and more adventurous in the choice of destination, and the type of food on offer.
Jersey's market strategy at this time was to concentrate on a Jersey tourism as a 'quality product', which meant forcing the modernisation of hotel and guest houses to include en-suite facilities. Unfortunately, the cost of the proprietors was passed on mainly to the tourists rather than seen as an investment for the future for which a loss must be borne. The cost of local goods had also steadily increased to the point where many goods had only a marginal differential from the VAT priced goods of the UK, and some were even more expensive. Eating out was equally more expensive, and the 'bistro' had become an expensive restaurant on a level with other more traditional restaurants, and presenting much the same style of eating. Their niche was now filled with the pubs, offering more reasonable priced food, and become more family friendly.
Tourism in the 1990s also faced an increased pressure from the finance industry. Because of the boom in finance, there was a corresponding rise in property prices. Proprietors of hotels and guest houses were facing dwindling profits and difficulties in obtaining low-cost staff. A guest house converted to a lodging house could yield better returns, and hotels could be converted to flats. Even more profit could be made for the proprietor and developer by demolishing the hotel and replacing it with 'luxury' flats or houses. Despite the occasional token efforts from the Planning and Environment department, most of the plans were approved, and by 2002 a considerable exodus of hoteliers had taken place, with building sites abounding as the hotels came down; as the tourism count of beds declined, so the numbers of tourists fell steadily.
By 2002, the Tourism committee seemed unable to define a clear market strategy, talking of concentrating on 'infrastructure', although precisely what this vague term meant was never apparent. The jewel in the tourist calendar, the 'Battle of Flowers', celebrating its 100th year was starved of funds; the Clipper race, which promoted Jersey throughout the world, had trouble gaining any sponsorship. The Tourism committee also seemed to be pinning their hopes on the planned hotel on the harbour waterfront boosting the lost visitor numbers, although there was no guarantee that this would be the case, and no indication how the obstacle of high air travel would be overcome or the high cost of living and recruitment of staff. Meanwhile, existing hoteliers called for firm monetary incentives rather than vague promises. No one has yet considered the UK strategy of tax incentives for ailing industries, although this might be considered a viable alternative.
It remains to be seen whether the fortunes of Jersey tourism can be reversed, but the prospects do not look good.