"I’m an Elvis fan," John Lennon once said, "Because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool." Out of Liverpool, in this case, also meant into international super-stardom, and presumably a singer for the Beatles might have left behind any number of places for the career that lay before him.
But fame cut both ways: Lennon also supposedly said that once of the worst parts of celebrity was being unable to have a pint at the Phil, meaning the Philharmonic Pub, a wood-paneled trace of Liverpool’s erstwhile industrial glory.
There was some leftover charm in the tough city where John, Paul, George, and Ringo grew up, but it was only getting tougher. The trade boom of the 19th century (at one point 40 percent of the world’s trade passed through the Merseyside docks) was long forgotten by the time the Beatles were playing downtown. Much of the city still showed the scars of the Liverpool Blitz, destruction that drew comparisons to the bombing of Cologne. The story of Liverpool in the late 20th century—deindustrialization and steady population loss—is one we associate more with American cities like Baltimore and Detroit. Liverpool lost nearly half its population between 1930 and 2001.
Then, suddenly, Liverpool got charming again. In the last decade, Liverpool has become—to the bewilderment of Londoners—a leading tourist attraction. The Northwest port, pop. 445,200, is now one of the top five United Kingdom destinations for overseas tourists. Readers of Condé Nast Traveler Magazine voted Liverpool the third-best city in England to visit (behind London and Bath), up from seventh in 2007. It was the only city besides London to feature in VisitEngland’s 2012 promotional video, the Tate Liverpool starring alongside Stephen Fry, Rupert Grint, and co.
Liverpool's economic news has not all been positive—a 2010 study showed that business density, skill levels, and employment rates were still well below the "Core Cities" average [PDF], England’s eight largest cities outside London. But tourism is the exception, one that seems to have weathered the recession and is leading the way forward. The Great Britain Tourism Survey (PDF) reports that overnight visits to Liverpool by Brits increased 30 percent from 2010 to 2011, the largest percent increase of any city in the top ten.
Liverpool is proving that, like the Cavern Club, it can trade on the value of its historical capital, with an "attack brand" of culture, heritage, music, and sport. Properly packaged, an 800-year legacy is a remarkable asset—Liverpool has an argument for the world’s best band, the nation’s best football club, and an industrial history laced with superlatives. In 2011, the city cut the ribbon on the eye-catching Museum of Liverpool, the largest national museum to open in the United Kingdom in over a hundred years.
The Phil is still there, and still a pleasant spot for a pint. And the Beatles are everywhere—from the audibly realistic Cavern Club tribute band that plays every night in a vaulted brick basement below Matthew Street to the $60 cab tours that take tourists to see where Ringo’s uncle bought his bread every morning. The city was the European Capital of Culture in 2008, a designation whose program of arts and culture events that year brought in 3.5 million first-time visitors [PDF] and one giant mechanical spider named Princess.
In some ways, the European Capital of Culture events absorbed credit for developments that had been underway for years. The city began to redevelop the Albert Docks in the 1980s, where today there are museums on the shipping industry, the slave trade, and, of course, the Beatles. In 1988, the formerly derelict docks were officially reopened by Prince Charles, along with the Tate Liverpool, the first Tate outside London. In 2004, UNESCO designated the docks and other areas of downtown as a World Heritage Site for their role in the rise of the British Empire, though the listing is now on the endangered list because of a development plan that would see skyscrapers built on the waterfront.
Liverpool's tourism industry is expected to increase from £493 million in 2007 to £1 billion pounds by 2020. In July, the Department of Education approved plans for a local school to train teenagers to work in hospitality, tourism, and culture. Last week, the Liverpool Waterfront Business Partnership (formed in 2009) announced it is forming a Community Interest Company to promote the area and the city’s reputation as a tourist destination. Now, the city is targeting the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), not for foreign investment but for tourism. If they come, they’ll be flying in through—where else—Liverpool John Lennon Airport, official slogan: "Above Us Only Sky."