Have we all got heritage fatigue?

Stately homes and gardens are losing the battle for visitors to futuristic theme parks, writes Yvonne Ridley
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THE CUSTODIANS of Britain's stately homes are bracing themselves for their worst Bank Holiday weekend in decades amidst fears that the bottom is falling out of the heritage market.

Official figures just published by the National Trust show a dramatic drop in attendance at some of the country's grandest properties and gardens.

Only one of the Trust's top 10 visitor attractions has not shown a year- on-year attendance drop - a trend reflected in all but 14 of the charity's top 80 properties which charge an entry fee.

Tourism experts blame the approaching millennium for the heritage fatigue syndrome which is also hitting hundreds of non-NT attractions. However attendance is surging at "futuristic sites" including London's Planetarium and the Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire.

Fountains Abbey, north Yorkshire, one of the Trust's top performers from March 1998 to February 1999, was nevertheless down by more than 10,500 visitors on the previous year, with only 275,000 passing through the gates.

Jemima Broadridge, an editor of the Rough Guide books, said: "It's no longer fashionable to visit stately homes and ancient monuments, and with the price of foreign travel becoming so cheap families are going to more exciting places.

"They also want value for money. France, for instance, is so accessible because of Eurostar and the tunnel. As a nation we are also becoming more futuristic in outlook and with the millennium fast approaching people are thinking more about the new century." The Rough Guide last year accused some Trust properties of being too expensive for visitors.

A spokesman for the British Tourist Association said: "The Millennium Dome is attracting attention at the moment and a lot of the millennium activities could dilute attendances to more traditional tourist spots, but it's nothing to get immediately concerned about. The overseas market is still very strong and the Americans, who provide the largest sector in that market, can't seem to get enough of our heritage."

However, research by the British Tourist Authority covering the 1998 calendar year has revealed a three per cent drop in visits to Trust properties and a one per cent drop for National Heritage sites and historic homes.

According to the BTA, the worst affected tourist attractions were stately gardens which had been hit by a seven per cent drop - the first decrease since 1985.

Jennifer Cox, of the Lonely Planet guide books, said: "We are a horribly expensive country and public transport leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the stately homes and public gardens are not that easy to get to, either. That will always be a problem but at the moment everyone is distracted by the millennium.

"At the moment it is fashionable to be futuristic and it's no coincidence that the new Star Wars movie came out when it did. Everything is being geared towards the new millennium. People are looking to the future but the tourism industry is very fickle and once millennium fever is over they will return to the heritage trail. Our sense of history and culture is enduring. If any attraction should give a long-term cause for concern it is the Dome. Once the new year is over how do you continue to market the millennium? It'll be gone.

"At the end of the day the British public wants value for money and with this in mind it might be an idea for the National Trust and English Heritage to set aside their rivalries and offer deals and discounts on joint memberships."

Alex Yuille, of the Trust, said there were several major factors to blame for the cooling of Britain's heritage trail and predicted last year's poor performance would turn out to be a glitch. "Yes, people did go abroad because the pound was so strong. A very wet start to the season did not help and the World Cup kept people glued to their TV sets.

"Although the attendance figures are down we have enjoyed a growth in membership and our income is very strong. I'm not convinced about the millennium factor."

Mr Yuille also dismissed suggestions that the Trust and English Heritage should launch joint deals and discounts for their members. "While we do work enormously closely together, English Heritage is a government agency part-funded by the taxpayer and we are an independent charity which relies entirely on voluntary donations and member subscriptions. You can't mix two different products."

An English Heritage spokeswoman said there was a more "interactive" approach to attracting tourists to its 400-plus properties, including staging historical battle re-enactments, plays, open theatres and more child-driven events.

"We are evolving all the time and strive to anticipate tourist demands," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Planetarium and Madame Tussauds wax works, both in London, said although the strong pound had deterred overseas visitors there had been a strong increase from the domestic market.

"The millennium, together with all the eclipse publicity, has driven people towards new technology, space and travel. It's entertaining and educational and you don't have to be a boffin to enjoy the Planetarium.

"But even in Madam Tussauds we have noticed a change in taste with the most popular figures becoming the contemporary ones rather than the historical exhibits. In popularity terms people want to see Princess Diana, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Joanna Lumley and Naomi Campbell rather than the old kings and queens."

Around 2.7 million people will have passed through the gates of Alton Towers, Britain's biggest tourist attraction, by the end of October. A spokesman there said: "We attract families with young kids and the theme is very much into the future.

"Our two most popular rides, Rollercoasters Oblivion and Nemesis, are very high-powered and very futuristic. Although our new themed area called UG Land is based on the Stone Age it is really state-of-the-art incorporating all the latest technology.

"What we offer visitors is excitement and entertainment which appeals to all ages."