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Hotels charge earth to see eclipse

ASTRONOMY enthusiasts will be able to watch the solar eclipse in Cornwall next year - but only at an astronomical price. Hotels are to charge up to pounds 3,000 for their rooms during the first total eclipse to be seen in Britain for 72 years.

More than 1.5 million visitors are expected to travel to Cornwall for the eagerly anticipated event on 11 August. But officials fear the greed of hoteliers will drive away visitors in the long term, threatening the county's annual pounds 800m in tourist revenue.

The Barrowfield hotel in Newquay, which stipulates a minimum stay of seven nights, is charging a family of two adults and two children pounds 3,021.20 for bed, breakfast and dinner during eclipse week. That is a 261 per cent rise on a similar stay for August this year which cost pounds 1,155.36.

The Atlantic hotel nearby, which also requires a seven-day minimum stay, is charging a family of four pounds 2,656 - an increase of 270 per cent on a similar deal last August, when the cost was pounds 983. The neighbouring Headland Hotel's five-night minimum stay costs pounds 1,495 for two adults and two children. Cost the following week would be pounds 995.

The Carlyon Bay Hotel in St Austell is charging an pounds 80 supplement per person for 10 and 11 August. Last August's rate was pounds 88 per person for bed, breakfast and dinner. Peter Brennan, the hotel's manager, said: "We're not out to make a killing, but we are in a business and it's a bit of a supply and demand situation."

The total solar eclipse will be visible through a large part of Cornwall, the central line passing through St Just, near Land's End, to Falmouth.

With just 33,000 beds in registered hotels and guesthouses, accommodation is a major headache for local authorities, but hoteliers have been criticised for taking advantage of a seller's market. The Association of Holiday Homes Agencies has reluctantly agreed to increase rates by between 25 and 33 per cent under pressure from its members. Jack Johnston, marketing and promotions officer for Restormel Borough Council, said: "We are very concerned about the pricing structure that has been talked about. Very high rises are not on, and I would condemn anybody doing it. You will always get people trying to cash in but we have to be seen to be treating customers properly."

The council is worried that overcharging, combined with a strong pound encouraging foreign holidays and a predicted recession, could leave Cornwall facing years of dwindling tourism.

"It's not 1999 we are concerned about but 2000 and the years after that," added Mr Johnston. "We must not be seen to be ripping off the holidaymaker. Cornwall has a strong loyalty factor with holidays and we have to reward that."

Sue Jesson, managing director of the Barrowfield, said her hotel faced additional costs, with suppliers charging premium prices and that it also intended to stage "spectacular" events during the week. She said the deal represented good value. "If you stay in a hotel in London you'll pay pounds 200 a night and that's without food. We are expecting a lot of demand for accommodation and we will have to put up our own staff who won't get home because of the congestion."

The manager of the Headland, John Armstrong, said the extra cost was justified by additional services the hotel planned. "We have a lecture by a scientist the night before the eclipse and a party the night after. With all the warnings about Cornwall becoming jammed people may not be able to get out into the county, so we are providing them with full board."

Newquay's Association of Tourism and Commerce defended the right of hoteliers to charge what they felt was appropriate. It has recommended that hotels charge up to 15 per cent more for the eclipse. "Some people are looking for accommodation and will pay any sort of price for it," said Bob Morgan, the association's chief administrator. "We can't dictate to our members what they should charge. It won't be counter productive if there are only a few people overcharging."

But the eclipse co-ordinator, Gage Williams, assigned to oversee the logistics surrounding the event, warned that any dramatic rise in prices could backfire. "It would be a pretty unpopular minority doing it," he said. "We had a hot summer in 1986 and hotels jacked up their prices to make the most of a bumper season, but the backlash from tourists lasted three years."

The price hikes have been condemned by other hoteliers. "It's just greed," said Ron Hatfield, who runs the Carnmarth Hotel in Newquay. "It gives Cornwall a label and Cornwall isn't like that. The difficulties hoteliers face warrants a small increase, but nothing like these charges."