Margate: the first modern coastal tourism resort?

Margate is an ancient coastal town of the Isle of Thanet in Kent in south-east England. The name is thought to refer to a gap in a cliff where pools of water can be found. Margate was an established fishing and trading port by 1300. However, its significance in the history of tourism derives from being an exemplar of temperate coastal resort change and possibly being the first modern coastal tourism resort.

Margate is recorded as being Britain’ s first commercial sea bathing resort in 1736 when a channel was cut from the sea to a waterfront tavern where bathing and drinking salt water was advocated for medical conditions. From 1750 onwards a bathing machine, invented by Benjamin Beale and first used at Margate, which allowed the occupant to be driven into the sea and enter the water in privacy and safety revolutionized sea access and immediately popularized sea bathing.

The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital founded in 1791 was Britain’ s first specialized hospital and advocated sea bathing and sea air in cases of consumption (tuberculosis) which was of epidemic proportions until well into the early 20th Century. Before the advent of the railways in the 1850s visitors would arrive by sea. However, once access was improved Margate rapidly became a mass tourism resort for London’ s working class along with Southend, Eastbourne and Brighton.

Margate was also the first resort to have donkey rides (1890), and the first to introduce deck chairs for hire (1898). From the 1930s on sunbathing grew in popularity as a result of the relatively high number of sunshine hours that Margate received as well as having a sandy beach, The Golden Sands, unlike many United Kingdom coastal resorts which have shin- gle beaches. Growth continued after the World War II with Margate becoming the site of several Butlin’ s hotels, as well as Dreamland, a themepark which was once the most visited charging attraction in the United Kingdom. Like many British seaside resorts its attractive- ness as a beach destination declined rapidly once access to Mediterranean coastal resorts increased in the early 1970s as a result of cheap airfares and holidays and direct flights.

Consequently, in the 1970s Margate experienced a large downturn in tourism and a substan- tial loss of people and capital through emigration. Although in recent years there has been something of a revival in visitation as a result of heritage tourism as well as second home and retirement development. Since 2004 regeneration has been focussed on the arts through the development of the Turner Contemporary art gallery and museum and a heritage precinct which is supported by noted British artist Tracey Emin, who grew up in Margate.

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