Jim Parker: The tourists are coming back to our shores - but now first impressions count

Harbourside store

New future for Debenhams - Credit: Archant

Torbay’s shattered tourism industry looks as if it will be able to make up for lost time big style in the months to come. 

After such a tough time with the lockdown closing the Bay and the door on visitors, the industry is poised to cash in on the threat to overseas holidays with Staycation very much the way ahead. 

Travelling abroad is a no-goer at the moment and if it were possible to take a flight to the sun what would you rather do – take Covid tests here, there and everywhere, fly and sunbathe with your mask on and be controlled even having breakfast or packing your suitcases, jumping into a car and nipping down the motorway for a break at the seaside on our naturally inspiring English Riviera (when allowed)? 

The answer lies in the fact that a lot of the local holiday accommodation providers are already booked up to the eyeballs. 

But with that comes some challenges. The resort needs to be ready in more ways than one for the expected invasion. 

Appearances and impressions are everything for a start. Our town centres aren’t exactly inviting places as the Bay enters- and is obviously far from completing – huge regeneration projects. 

There is some concern especially about the state and look of the harbourside in Torquay where a boarded up Debenhams store, or rather stores, and other empty businesses look awful. 

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Leading figures in the world of hospitality have voiced their concern to me about what the holidaymakers will think when they see the area especially after millions of pounds have been invested in promoting our prime waterfront areas by the English Riviera BID Company. 

 Plans to demolish the Debenhams store were agreed by Torbay Council’s cabinet on Tuesday –with a proviso that they need to try and save the building’s historic canope as part of any future development after some protests from the locals. 

The council wants to regenerate the site with a mixed development of flats and commercial use including restaurants at street level. 

The project would tie in with improvements to the public space around the harbourside, which is expected to see wider pavements, better seating and lighting. 

That work is being planned as one of the regeneration projects in the £22million Town Deal package allocated to Torquay after a successful bid for Government funds. 

Talks have been held with other owners of other properties on the Strand, including the empty Boots store, to explore the possibility of a bigger regeneration project. But that has been shelved because agreement has not been reached on values. 

A report to the council’s Cabinet says pre-application inquiries with the planning department have shown a redevelopment scheme would be supported. 

The report to Tuesday's meeting said: “The replacement of the existing soon to be empty building with a mixed use development will benefit economic and housing growth. Good quality homes will be delivered above ground floor levels. 

“Employment opportunities will be provided through the provision of new food retail and commercial floor space at ground floor level once the development is completed.” 

All sounds great here, but the issue is one of time – the council doesn’t have any! Any redevelopment project isn’t like to go before planners until the end of the summer. What happens meanwhile as our visitors start to flock in? 

Council leader Steve Darling is absolutely aware of the need to ‘get the doors open’ once Debenhams finally and sadly quit their harbourside home and I gather talks are being held with one if not two potential interim tenants. 

There is also some talk of improving empty buildings with art work although Cllr Darling says: “The problem is getting hold of the landlords.” 

He is quick to point out: “It is a town centre in transition, not decline.” 

 But accepts the need to ensure the visitors – and locals alike for that matter – are properly catered for and managed as we Welcome them Back and hopefully persuade them to keep coming back even after the tempting foreign resorts are back as a option