Britain heads for the hills as foreign visitors fill up cities

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The Independent Online

It is almost as if the foot-and-mouth crisis never happened. After the barren years in which hardly anybody visited the British countryside, it is full of people again this Bank Holiday weekend. Record numbers of city folk are seeking fresh air and peace - with foreign visitors flying in to fill up the cities they have temporarily abandoned.

"We are expecting this Easter to be a record breaker," said a spokesman for the tourist board in the Lake District. Along with Cornwall and Norfolk, it is Britain's busiest region this weekend. "Domestic tourism has been increasing. We have a lot of successful, professional city-dwellers coming to stay."

Robin Barker, deputy chief executive of South West Tourism, agreed: "The growth area is short breaks. People want to de-stress from their working lives, so they come here to relax."

While the threat of terrorism may have encouraged some people to run to the hills rather than fly somewhere foreign, the weather is doing its best to make them regret it. A spokesman for the Met Office predicted "classic Easter weather", with patchy showers, clouds, a little sunshine and temperatures of around 13 degrees - just below average. The Automobile Association said it was expecting 18 million cars on the roads but little congestion until tomorrow night, when routes back into the cities would be busy. The holiday migration will be good news for those whose livelihoods have been slow to recover since swathes of the countryside were sealed off due to foot-and-mouth disease three years ago.

French and German tourists are among the most numerous flying into Britain this weekend, the most popular destinations being London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Bob Cotton of the British Hospitality Association said: "We are seeing a lot of Britons going on domestic breaks, a market that is much stronger than normal. At the same time we are seeing a lot of visitors from abroad coming to the UK. The top end of the trade is not doing so well over Easter - it is the short-term package breaks to London that are being snapped up."

It was not all one-way traffic at the airports. The Association of British Travel Agents said 2.1 million people were travelling abroad from this country this weekend, easily beating last year's record figure of 1.8 million. They were heading for mainland Spain, the Canary Islands, Cyprus and Turkey, but also European cities such as Amsterdam, Dublin and Prague.

Anyone planning to travel in or out of London by rail today, particularly on the West Coast mainline, would be better advised to stay put. Network Rail is shutting down lengths of track for engineering work. No trains will leave Euston today and a bus replacement will operate between the station and Northampton. St Pancras is closed until tomorrow. There are also scores of other minor engineering works disrupting services across the country.

The Transport minister Kim Howells said finding time for maintenance was always difficult but bank holidays represented the best opportunity because fewer people would be travelling.