When Hadrian's Wall was first bracketed with the pyramids and the Great Wall of China as a Unesco World Heritage Site 15 years ago, its conservationists were edgy about exposing a fragile antiquity to all and sundry. In the words of one, it was a case of "keep your feet off the red carpet".
Yesterday English Heritage declared itself ready to change that approach, announcing a £7m investment strategy to increase visitor numbers and spread them across some of the 73-mile Roman frontier's rather jaded central rural sites.
This means more money for the Chesters Roman Fort, Britain's best preserved example of a cavalry fort, and Housesteads, the most complete Roman fort in Britain.
And the recommended beginning of any wall tour will be near the central village of Once Brewed, where an existing youth hostel and interpretation site will make way for a new guide to the wall's 10 forts and museums. Visitor numbers among them have been in decline since the 1970s.
The perils of increasing the current 1.25 million tourists a year are all too clear to the conservationists. Repairs have recently been made to a five-metre section of wall near Peel Gap that collapsed over the August bank holiday weekend – partly a result of visitors' tendency to walk on the wall.
But the economic value of the attraction, which rakes in £134m revenue a year within the corridor running 10 miles either side of it, has made sustainable development a keystone of a new six-year management plan, which details the investment.
English Heritage is convinced that it can attract some of the increased numbers of people out walking around the wall area, particularly in the central sector. The opening of a Hadrian's Wall National Trail next year – making the site part of Britain's 2,500-mile network of National Trails – is also expected to add more visitors.
"The keynote of all this is sustainability," said Paul Austin, co-ordinator of the management plan. "We are trying to conserve the wall and encourage more people here. The more the revenue, the more potential for investment." The plan lays emphasis on visitors not relying on cars – passengers on the Hadrian's Wall bus service, AD122, are gradually increasing.
In recent years, the wall's urban sites have been the focus of development, particularly the Segedunum Roman Fort, Bath House and Museum, a £9.5m project in Wallsend at its eastern extreme which has attracted more than 135,000 visitors since opening in 2000.
But the rural locations are already offering new potential. Thirwall Castle, a 14th- century Northumbrian ruin at Greenhead, has just reopened after a £430,000 programme partly funded by Northumberland National Park.
English Heritage has also committed £50,000 to help to repair the ruined castle at westerly Bewcastle, built within a Roman outpost fort and currently on the Buildings at Risk Register. The castle was partially damaged in the 17th century after the Civil War, but the last recorded repairs were undertaken in the 15th century by Richard, Duke of York, later Richard III.
The management plan's rural emphasis is also a product of the effects of foot-and-mouth disease in the areas bordering the wall.
Last year, visitor figures to the Roman forts dropped by 38 per cent and approximately 80 per cent of farms within the World Heritage Site and its setting had their stock destroyed.
At the start of this year the Hadrian's Wall Tourism Partnership launched a £75,000 marketing campaign which has seen January to July 2002 visitor figures to Roman sites rise to 361,181, a substantial increase on the 341,219 during the same period in 2000.
"The wall is a prime example of how a conservation-led top tourist attraction can be an economic driver in the region," Mr Austin said.