Bad weather blamed as tourist visits slump to seven-year low

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THE NUMBER of visitors to tourist destinations has fallen for the first time in seven years, although their spending has reached a record high.

There were 408 million visitors to the country's attractions last year, a drop of 1.7 per cent. Northern Ireland suffered the biggest fall in visitors, with 5 per cent less in 1998. Numbers dropped by 3 per cent in both Scotland and Wales, and by 1 per cent in England.

The English Tourism Council, which published the figures today, is blaming poor weather, the strong pound and the World Cup for the lowest attendance figures since 1991. Hardest hit by the poor summer were gardens (down 7 per cent), country parks (down 4 per cent) and leisure parks (down 3 per cent). Museums and galleries recorded a 1 per cent increase in visitors and the numbers at wildlife parks rose by 2 per cent.

Tourist spending grew by 4 per cent to a record pounds 1.32bn. Elaine Noble, acting chief executive of the council, said: "This is the first time in nearly seven years that there has been a drop in the number of visits to UK tourist attractions and, despite this, visitor spending has hit a record high. Obviously traditional outdoor attractions, particularly gardens, were the victim of our poor summer in 1998, although it is encouraging to note wild-life attractions have increased their visitor numbers."

The top three destinations in the United Kingdom were Westminster (20,113,000 visits), Blackpool (9,494,000) and Birmingham (7,361,000), which rose from fifth place the previous year. Windsor and Maidenhead enjoyed a 24 per cent rise in visitors, mainly due to numbers at Windsor Castle and Legoland. Bristol also had a 17 per cent rise, with attractions such as the City Museum, the Industrial Museum and the zoo playing their part.

The most popular new attraction was the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, which attracted 365,000 visitors in its first season, followed by the Oceanarium, in Bourne-mouth, with 325,430.

Warwick Castle was visited by 777,500 people last year, compared with 798,000 in 1997.Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire saw a drop of 9 per cent to 438,976, while numbers at Chatsworth House, Derby-shire fell 3 per cent to 475,000.

The report also said the average adult admission charge in 1998 ranged from pounds 2.18 at museums and galleries to pounds 7.47 for leisure parks. On average, 49 per cent of revenue came from admission charges, 41 per cent from retailing and 10 per cent from catering.