The tourism industry will spend the next few days assessing the impact of the foot and mouth crisis on one of its peak holiday periods – Easter weekend.
Put off by the countryside’s burning carcasses and the limited right to roam, large numbers of weekend trippers have either flocked to warmer and sunnier climates abroad, or to wet and windy coastal towns.
Many overseas visitors have let themselves be swayed by rumours of devastation from our “fair isle” and have instead opted to stay away.
Other factors have played a part besides the recent outbreak of foot and mouth.
The horror of the Hatfield rail crash and subsequent travel delays caused by long overdue track work have conjured up a fear of an unsafe, broken-down travel system. Pictures of overflowing river banks have reached as far afield as Mozambique – an impoverished country also hit by flooding, but on a much larger scale – and prompted the country to raise money for the residents of York. Potential tourists from the US fear that there’s a risk of catching foot and mouth – because a different disease of the same name exists in their own country. And some overseas visitors have decided to bring their own dried food, either because they think that our supermarket shelves are bare or that the products are somehow unsafe owing to BSE and foot and mouth.
All very well. But the warning signs for the UK’s £64bn a year tourist industry were there before foot and mouth and other disasters had a chance to hit home. UK tourism is on the wane, experiencing a slow decline while the global tourism industry grows – up 7.4 per cent last year.
The number of long-haul overseas visitors has been hit by the Asian financial crisis, a situation now compounded by a dip in the US economy. It’s not simply a question of persuading them that England is open for business and that castles and museums can be visited despite the foot and mouth crisis.
The strong pound has also exacerbated the British tourist industry affecting not only overseas visitors but also driving UK residents abroad who might otherwise have holidayed at home. Why fork out for a cottage in Cornwall and the risk of rain when you can fly to hot and sunny Greece for the same price?
For too long it has been taken for granted that the UK’s attractions will speak for themselves. Political correctness has only added to the problem with an agreement that has allowed Scotland and Wales to produce country-specific marketing campaigns, with England only being able to concentrate on the regions in a bid to prevent it from swamping its smaller neighbours.