Cathedrals draw up plans to charge tourists

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Tourism and conservation specialists are to discuss whether visitor numbers to the nation's cathedrals and great churches should be restricted to stop wear and tear.

Westminster Abbey will be highlighted as a role model for slowing the damage being caused to some of Britain's most popular attractions. The introduction of charges there has cut numbers and helped to restore a sense of calm.

A range of measures to ease the tension between the demands of tourism and those of heritage will be on the table at a meeting in London on Thursday between the Tourism Society and the UK branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos).

Research last year by Icomos into the condition of Britain's religious buildings concluded that there was "rather more wear and tear" in evidence than had been noticed by ecclesiastical authorities and that further control measures were necessary.

It reported many examples of destruction, including serious wear to the floors of Canterbury Cathedral at the spot where Thomas à Becket's martyrdom is marked, a threat to fragile painted surfaces in St Albans cathedral and damage caused by children's buggies bumping against medieval woodwork in Exeter Cathedral.

Many cathedrals reported theft, vandalism, noise, disturbance of services, unruly behaviour and litter as problems.

But Westminster Abbey has managed to mitigate problems by introducing charges, which restricts numbers to those keen to visit, and by rerouting visitors as a way of minimising damage.

Guides and tour organisers now know that some of the most vulnerable areas of the abbey, such as the Shrine, are no longer part of the normal tourist route.

Education centres at cathedrals including Canterbury and Winchester, catering facilities at Chester, Peterborough and Salisbury and shops at Norwich and Salisbury have also helped to ease conservation problems by spreading tourists throughout the buildings.

The heritage lobby and tourism leaders accept that such buildings are an important attraction for visitors but believe there may be ways of satisfying the conflicting demands of tourism, conservation and preservation of the religious experience.

Adrian Clark, the administrative director of the Tourism Society, said: "Ultimately, it is recognised – and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth only helped to underline it – that this country needs and depends on tourism."

But the problems had to be addressed, he said. "There are cathedrals and great churches that are being eroded, if not being destroyed, by too much visiting by non-congregational people."