Next crisis for Britain: tourism

The prime minister sought to win back visitors this week. Bookings fell due to a livestock epidemic.

British politicians often spend Easter vacations in continental Europe. But this year, most are touting the beauty - and safety - of their own countryside, even as ordinary Britons leave in record numbers for foreign sunspots like Tuscany and Majorca.

Holiday plans are just one symbol of the intricate links between farming, politics, and tourism that have emerged in the wake of the devastating foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak.

While a government scientist says the worst appears to be over for agriculture, a major effort is under way to rescue the far more vital tourism industry. And though the crisis is unlikely to cost Tony Blair the election, expected in two months, it has caused problems for the prime minister's Labour government.

The epidemic brought graphic images of burning British livestock to media around the world as authorities sought to contain the disease. France and Ireland have reported success after a swift reaction to isolated cases, even as the Netherlands confirmed its outbreak appears to have spread.

In Britain, many footpaths and national parks were closed, and sections of the countryside were put out of bounds.

But on Wednesday, David King, the prime minister's chief scientific adviser, said the crisis is now "past the worst."

The barriers are coming down, and more than 80 percent of Britain's tourist attractions are open, including all the main draws - Stonehenge, for example, reopened this week. By June, it could all be over, Professor King said.

But the damage to tourism may already have been done. A survey by the British Hospitality Association indicated that 80 percent of hotels here have suffered a loss of business. That could mean losses of $4.3 billion in overseas earnings and $2.8 billion in domestic tourism, it said. "There is no doubt that many hospitality businesses are under extreme financial pressure," said Bob Cotton, chief executive of BHA in a statement.

Times are tough, though many proprietors say they are holding on.

Bookings collapsed in April, says Catherine Field of the Tigh an Eilean, a small hotel perched on the edge of a loch on Scotland's West coast. But though they are down for May and June, they are "holding up reasonably well."

Judith Pool of the Ring o' Bells, a pub on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park in Devon, says she is "full up for Easter." But "there are those that are going to suffer," she adds - those with smaller bed-and-breakfasts, and "the butcher they buy their bacon from and the baker where they buy their bread."

The government has announced loan packages for small tourist and retail businesses. But it has come under fire from the industry for its handling of the crisis. Farming has received far more cash than tourism, despite the latter's greater importance to the economy.

Tourism is worth $92 billion a year -or more than 6 percent of the total economy. It is also very vulnerable. Four-fifths of the 127,000 enterprises are small companies with fewer than 10 staff members - small hotels, public houses (or pubs) in rural areas, or local taxi firms. A few weeks without cash flow, and the business goes under.

Agriculture is, by comparison, a much smaller part of the overall economy, worth about $12 billion. Its direct contribution fell to less than 1 percent for the first time in 1999, according to Britain's Countryside Agency.

Farming was already in crisis, as a world slump in prices slashed average rural incomes last year to a 25-year low of about $11,000. Cumbria, Northumberland, and the southwest - parts of the country hardest hit by FMD - were already the most-deprived rural areas, where farmers had sought to supplement their income with tourist ventures like bed-and-breakfasts. Tourism takings in these areas are down by 70 percent to 80 percent.

While members of Parliament may be under strict instructions to stay at home, airlines and ferry companies have reported a rush of bookings, as nearly 2 million Britons head for warmer climes. But it is tourism from abroad that really worries the industry and the government.

Figures compiled by the British Tourist Authority and by the British Incoming Tour Operators' Association show that overseas visitor numbers last month were down by about 30 percent from the 1.8 million recorded in March 2000. Recent bookings from the US were down 20 percent against last year, though the decline in the US economy was in any case expected to bite into the tourism industry.

The BTA is planning an international publicity campaign to reassure travellers from abroad, especially the US. Articles in Mr. Blair's name have appeared in USA Today and Bild, a German mass-circulation paper. "There is no shortage of water," said the article in USA Today. "Britain is not covered in funeral pyres. Everyday life goes on as normal for the vast majority of Britons - and visitors."

The campaign points out that the livestock disease poses little or no risk to humans. Only about 1,000 farms in the United Kingdom have been directly affected, out of 160,000 in the country as a whole.

Yet it is the images rather than the facts that seem to deter people. "Just hearing about the slaughter policy upsets many people," says Elliott Frisby, a BTA press officer.

And there are other problems with Britain's image. It has rained steadily for months, and large parts of the countryside are just recovering from massive flooding. Two-thirds of Britain's foreign tourists are from continental Europe, where Britain's travails - not just FMD, but also rail-transport problems and flooding - have been prominently featured in the media for months.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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