Too crowded flows the Cam

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An unusual kind of traffic congestion is stirring in the quieter backwaters of Cambridge.

The River Cam is in danger of becoming clogged by its famous punts, according to Professor Michael Chisholm, chairman of the Cam Conservators, the body responsible for registering boats on the river.

Unless the fast-growing number of craft is stemmed, the millions of visitors who descend on the city each year may be put off taking the quintessentially Cambridge trip along the University Backs, he warned yesterday.

"If the numbers become significantly more than they are now then people may be turned off wanting to come on the Cam because it is just so crowded and unpleasant," said the retired Cambridge University geography lecturer. "That would be bad for the operators and bad for the city, which I think now attracts about 3 million visitors a year."

There has been a big increase in river traffic in recent years as punting becomes increasingly popular among tourists. Around 300 punts now compete for trade and many are chauffeur punts which are twice the size of the original models.

Rod Ingersent, 29, manager of Cambridge Punting Company, which owns 150 punts, dismissed the problem. "Obviously we don't agree," he said. "I think punts have reached the ceiling in terms of the number there are going to be and it seems entirely manageable to us."

The annual licence fees, pounds 153 for a six-passenger punt and double that for a chauffeur punt, are prohibitive, added Mr Ingersent. "It's very unlikely the numbers will go up because the fees are very high, the highest in the country."

Professor Chisholm's remarks come amid growing concern about rowdy behaviour on the river and growing competition between rival punt operators. There have been reports of heated arguments between the staff of rival punt firms touting for customers and police warn they will step in if disputes get out of hand.