Tourism potential generates a chord of optimism

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What is was willing in or walling out, " wrote New England poet Robert Frost. He might have been speaking for England's northeast, which has a history of walls. The marauding Scots were kept back by the Roman wall begun under the Emperor Hardrian in about AD 122. The Venerable Bede, father of English historians, lived within the walls of the monastery of Jarrow in the eighth century.

And Newcastle itself was, literally, a "new castle." Built by William the Conquerer in 1080 with an eye on England's unruly northern neighbors, some of its original walls are still standing 900 years later.

History since has eroded the masonry and upended the motives behind the walls; and the rolling and castle-rich hills of the Pennines and the border country are no longer defended against onslaught. Quite the reserve: These days thousands of "invaders" roam the northeast. Lured by the green and pleasant land, the beaches and ruins and museums, they pour in, armed not with pikes and targes but with cameras and credit cards.

The Northumbria Tourist Board, which embraces the four-country northeastern region, is delighted to see them. Tourism, the board says, has tremendous potential in the area. With a turn for curious statistics, it computes such things as tourist density, showing that the region of northumbria (not to be confused with Northumberland County) averaged 12 tourist-nights per square mile in 1978. It was beaten only the Cumbia (10) as the sparsest are in England, in constrast with the West Company (34), the North West (42), and London (427)

Tourism is valued in Northumbria for three reasons: It upgrades the image of the area (which self-conscious Geordies are uneasy about), it prompts efforts to conserve the heritage of the region, and it is bolsters the economy.

In June 1976 (the latest figures avalilable), there were 43,200 employees in hotels and catering services in the northeast, excluding a large number of self-employed. Recent figures for largely rural Northumberland County found 3, 000 jobs supported by tourism, 3 percent of the total employment, contributing L 15 million ($33 million) to the economy.

Tourists, says the tourist board, are good business for the region. For every L100 they spend, L49 remains in the local economy. But the northeast still struggles with its brooding weather and its unfamiliarity to outsiders

Of the 4 million tourist-nights spend here in 1978, most were on "secondary holidays," a few days squeezed in after a major trip elsewhere. Such holidays, being expendable, are sometimes cut because of financial pressures on the family. But the economic forces may also work the other way: Since the tourist population here tends to be fairly local and fairly low spending (skilled workers from Leeds, Manchester, or Nottingham coming self-contained in campers, for instance), the area may attract more tourists as overseas sun spots price themselves beyond English means.

At present the region has a known stock of nearly 20,000 bed spaces in more than 1,100 establishments. The Northumbria Tourist Board regularly surveys the area to find understocked locations and has a program on grants and consulting services available to would-be entrepreneurs.

One factor for growth is tourism originating abroad. Recent figures show that 17 percent of the guests arriving at hotels throughout England were from overseas. Overseas arrivals in the northeast, however, were less than half that figure.

Some pressure for change comes, oddly enough, from an organization based in Atlanta, Ga., called the Friendship Force. President Carter's visit to the northeast of England in 1977 inaugurated an exchange of residents between Newcastle and Atlanta, its sister city. Next year four trips are planned to take northeasterners for week-long stays at private homes in North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, and Nevada. Paying their own way, they fly out in charter-plane loads and in return similar flights come in from America.

Transportation to the northeast is generally good. British Rail's new Inter-City 125 trains -- sleek, air-smooth coaches traveling up to 125 miles per hour on the London-Edinburgh route -- call at several norheastern cities almost hourly.

The main north-south motorway is excellent, although by American standards, it unravels into congestion as it approaches Newcastle.

In the larger cities, as in much of England, parking is chancy. It is especially so in Newcastle, where a battle brews between the Country Council, which wants fewer parking places as it tries to promote its new Metro system with suburban "park and ride" terminals, and the City Council, which worries about putting off would-be shoppers and tourists.

As with much else in the area, however, the growth of tourism may depend on the Geordie's view of its worth. In a recent poll only 64 percent of the people queried thought tourism's benefits outweighed its disadvantaes, a ranking below that given tourism by the people of Cumbria and the Lake District (71 percent) and London (76 percent).

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