Benidorm or bust for us

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Benidorm. Blackpool with sunshine, some say. Albeit not those who have just braved one of the wettest Novembers on record in the Spanish Costa Blanca resort.

It not only washed out much of the annual fiesta, biggest crowd puller for locals and visitors alike, but flooded nearby Denia. And with the world’s cameras trained on Spain’s General Strike against austerity, unemployment running at one-in-four, coinciding with the final day of the fiesta.

Tourism chiefs made contingencies to ensure sufficient police, stewards, street cleaners and safeguards to ensure processions and fireworks went ahead.

Benidorm’s the spiritual Spanish twin of Blackpool. Similar mix of tourists. The last decade has seen three new five star hotels built, renovation of 90 per cent of others. A dramatic new seafront (sounds familiar?) has won architectural acclaim and attracted new restaurants, cafes, tapas bars. There are five world class theme parks, award winning restaurants, and Blue Flag beaches. Blackpool has some catching up to do.

It attracts 1.5m UK visitors, thousands from the Fylde, Lancashire, Cumbria and Scotland thanks to Jet2.com’s almost daily services to Alicante from Blackpool Airport.

Brits make up 40 per cent of total visitors, the Spanish much of the rest. Jet2’s local crews appreciate the enduring appeal of this route. Blackpool stewardesses Christine Bradley and Charlotte Holt regularly cover the service. “It’s always busy,” says Christine, an air hostess for 26 years, and one of the original BA “babes” . “Like the passengers I can be home within minutes. Jet2 prides itself on being the friendly airline and it’s a friendly airport. Lots of potential too.”

From our base in the family-run Onasol Avenida in the Old Town, it’s clear Benidorm still moves with the times. It was one of the first to introduce clubland zoning.

It faces similar issues to Blackpool such as a perceived blight by a Costa del (Sol) Crime series which has deterred some Brits - much as Channel Four’s controversial documentary 999: What’s Your Emergency? series may have put off some visitors here.

Visitors are warned to beware of so called carterista, pickpockets, purse dippers. We spot two Romanian girls out for easy pickings on the street markets. A vigilant shopkeeper moves them on. Visitors are warned to double lock hotel or apartment doors. One maid recently foiled a robber responsible for a spate of thefts having used x-ray paper to lift locks.

Cult TV series Benidorm has actually enhanced the English Zone’s appeal while poking gentle fun at the mobility market and the drink-till-they drop brigade. But more are exploring the modernised areas and the Old Town. One national tabloid journalist was forced to eat his words, invited to judge Benidorm for himself rather than from afar.

It took a trip for him to realise there was much more to it than the fully monty British brekkers, stag and hen party bars, karaoke clubs or endless free “carpet” trips or apartment touts. Blackpool still eerily echoes all around. There’s a Seasiders Bar, chippies, Tower Lounge, a burlesque cabaret drag bar a la Funnygirls. A gay village wends through narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town near the tapas bars popular with all nations and locals. The relative flatness of the area attracts a huge disabled market. There’s an insurance growth industry for less mobile expats living there too. You can hire a Madge-mobile, as many call mobility scooters, from Easy Hire for 40 Euros a week. They even run to two seater stretched “limo” scoooters!

So-called “snowbirds” over-wintering there include Madge and Harold Ellis, of St Annes, in their 80s, although one heart scare saw £8k of their savings lost to private health care last year, the EU reciprocal system having failed them. Other locals living there include Marton born Gabriella Cowell who rose through resort and regional holiday rep ranks.

One of her best friends is Benidorm’s new tourism director Yolanda Pickett Fernandez of the Visit Benidorm tourist board. And Yolanda has made the resort her own.

She also reacts with surprise to UK press reports suggesting the Brits have fallen out of love with Benidorm. “UK visitor numbers grow year on year and we are very proud Benidorm remains number one on the list of best selling destinations in Spain for the UK,” she says. “While the whole of Europe has felt the effects of global recession Benidorm’s reputation as a unique, accessible and excellent value resort remains unparalleled. We have a very high percentage of guests who return year after year to enjoy five world class theme parks, three award winning beaches and year round sunshine. It remains a summer destination for young people and families and a winter spot for older visitors.”

Sounds familiar? Si!

jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette or tweet her @jacquimorley