Fewer visitors set foot in Britain

SUN JOURNAL

Tourism: Outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease has the nation trying to reassure the United States and the rest of world it's open for business.

Sun Journal

April 16, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - It's the first day of their spring vacation trip to Britain, and Betsy and Keith Walker want their friends back in the United States to know that they haven't come across burning pyres of pigs, cattle or sheep.

The couple from Tappan, N.Y., can breathe the air, drink the water and even eat the food in a country where foot-and-mouth disease has ravaged not just farming, but tourism.

"Our friends were saying, `Oh my God, why are you going to Britain?'" Betsy Walker says as she and her husband - who was born in Birmingham, England, but who considers himself a New Yorker, right down to the Yankees cap he is wearing - stride on the south bank of the Thames River. The couple heads to the giant London Eye, where crowds wait patiently for a 30-minute spin aboard a Ferris wheel that affords a bird's-eye view of the British capital.

"We know it is safe here," she says. "But I hear the four most famous words in England are: `I'll have the fish.'"

In this British spring, the Walkers are among the hardy American tourists ignoring the misconceptions and media scare stories swirling around Britain's foot-and-mouth outbreak.

And the British tourism industry is certainly glad to see them.

Facing billions in potential lost revenue, British tourism has been one of the unexpected casualties of the outbreak, which was first detected in February and has spread to more than 1,200 sites, principally in rural areas.

The British are trying to get the word out, especially to millions of hesitant Americans, that the country is open and there is plenty to do, with enough theaters, museums, country homes and quaint villages to satiate the most energetic of guests.

"I think [the Americans] will come back," says Jacqueline Gazzard, a spokeswoman for the Tower of London. "They're a loyal, Anglophile audience who think that we're all quite bizarre."

The Easter weekend heralded the start of the prime tourist season and the British are clearly hoping visitors show up.

While many hiking trails remain closed, the cities and vast swathes of the countryside are open, as are the nation's top 10 attractions, including the ancient stone circle at Stonehenge, where visitors have to make one concession to the foot-and-mouth outbreak by walking across mats drenched in disinfectant.

Foot-and-mouth disease affects cloven-footed animals such as pigs, sheep and cattle but rarely affects humans. It can be transmitted on cars and clothing, and by the wind.

Animals are being destroyed to maintain a healthy herd and foster Britain's export market for meat. Authorities are trying to make sure the disease doesn't become endemic to the country's livestock. But that may prove difficult to explain to tourists who wouldn't know foot-and-mouth disease from mad cow disease, the ailment that devastated British farming in the early 1990s.

And throw in the sight of animal carcasses being burned, with the images broadcast on TV news in the United States, and there is a recipe for a tourism disaster. "On American news, they showed bulldozers lifting up hundreds of dead animals," Betsy Walker says. "The picture they were painting was very grim."

It's only in recent weeks that the British government has responded, mobilizing top Cabinet officers in a get-out-the-tourism campaign that seems to have replaced a planned May 3 general election. Local elections were postponed and the general election has been moved back, perhaps to June, as Prime Minister Tony Blair concentrates his attention on the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Blair recently showed up in the medieval city of York and proclaimed that the country was open for business.

In his eagerness to be shown with a tourist, Blair reached out to a Japanese man to have his photo taken with him, not knowing that the "visitor" was a television reporter covering the event.

The British Hospitality Association says the disease will cost the tourism industry $7 billion, with three in 10 hotels reporting that business is off by 25 percent and 14 percent of hotels claiming losses of more than 50 percent. The tourism industry provides an annual total income of more than $70 billion.

Bookings are way down in places where the disease has struck fiercest, such as Devon and Cumbria. Tourists are even beginning to stay away from London, hardly a hotbed for farming.

Attendance declines have been reported at attractions such as Madame Tussaud's, where thousands usually stand in line to see waxwork figures of their favorite stars, and the Tower of London, perhaps the most secure fortress in the land because it houses the crown jewels.

"The Tower of London is really not going to be a problem area for foot-and-mouth disease," Gazzard says. "The disease is being vastly misrepresented in the press. People don't think it's safe to eat meat in Britain. It's rubbish. It has actually never been safer to eat meat here."

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