Counting the cost of Calais

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The cost of Calais this year (with wildcat strikes and migrant problems) may be impossible to add up, but at very least it cost Rye’s Heritage Centre by Strand Quay an estimated £2,500, the Town Council was told on Monday – and that is just the damage to one small part of the town’s “visitor industry”, the day trippers.

Centre manager Peter Cosstick says “there is probably lots more in terms of losses” but some will stay unknown for ever because they represent visitors who decided not to come after watching the TV news and seeing queues of lorries on the M40. Peter, however, could relate to the “French kids who had got up, sometimes at 4am, to pile into coaches, and were then stuck on the quayside in Calais with their teachers”.

French students visiting Rye on a regular basis for day trips are however a very specific market and Peter is able to check his books and say “Tuesday June 30 – 160 French cancelled”. But, as he also said, “that doesn’t allow for the losses of other businesses and the knock effect is considerable”.

The museum in Ypres Tower is also used to host these regular student parties (as is St Mary’s church too, with visitors going up the tower for views right across the Marsh) and museum volunteers can equally swiftly tick off their losses, and the student groups who never arrived – as can the icecream salesmen and the fast food shops (and Jempsons too).

But regular day trips by students are just one segment of Rye’s market, which includes adults in coaches (often pensioners) and particularly on market day, as well as overnight and short break stayers at B&Bs and hotels – and the TV and newspaper pictures of cross Channel chaos and lengthy lorry queues on the M20 may have deterred many. Peter said nearby attractions like Leeds Castle had also seen steep drops in business but, for the Heritage Centre, it was not all bad news.

He says they have coped well with the closure of the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) earlier this year and, while they can not handle phone or on-line requests, “walk-in” enquiries for accommodation were up about a third. Also, as he told the Town Council, the Heritage Centre continues to be a key asset for the town  providing face to face information  and educating visitors about the town and its history, as well as remaining a profitable major attraction with the town model

Peter, who has run the Heritage Centre by Strand Quay for seven years, may have a change in role next year and is discussing this with the Town Council, but he will be handing over a healthy, profitable well run business to his successor.

Since the TIC in Lion Street closed in March, the Heritage Centre has been the only source of local information to the many tourists that visit Rye and Peter says the TIC closure has not had a great effect on footfall at the Heritage Centre. “We are always busy, particularly in the summer “, he says, and it is likely that the Heritage Centre will always on the “to do” list for visitors to the town as it is not just a source of advice and information, but a tourist attraction in its own right – with the popular town model and vintage coin operated machines, including a rather depressing fortune teller (“You are likely to have money troubles, you should think about getting another job”).

According to Peter about 50% of the business comes from foreign students, often arriving in coaches, and London related items (black cabs, London buses, London t-shirts etc) account for about half the sales. This may seem odd, but Peter explains: “The teachers advise the students to buy here as it’s much less than the price they would pay in London”. Peter officially retired from his job in the energy industry 10 years ago and the Heritage Centre has been a labour of love, about which “I’m incredibly passionate”, he says.

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