Confusion over footpaths keeps visitors away from country areas

Fresh outbreak in Somerset puts national park on red alert, as holidaymakers opt for towns and seaside instead of rural areas
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It was a case of too little too late yesterdayas Britain's beleaguered rural economy continued to struggle despite government attempts to lure visitors back to the country.

It was a case of too little too late yesterdayas Britain's beleaguered rural economy continued to struggle despite government attempts to lure visitors back to the country.

Widespread confusion as to which areas of the countryside had been reopened for business led to the thousands of hoped-for tourists staying away and spending the bank holiday weekend at alternative urban and seaside attractions.

Although about one in five footpaths reopened in time for the bank holiday weekend the Ramblers' Association claimed most remained empty because local authorities had taken too long to advise the public on which areas were accessible.

In north Wales, where four of Snowdon's main footpaths were reopened on Friday, local businesses were still mourning a lack of visitors. Rae Duffielkd, who runs a hotel in region, said yesterday: "The news about footpaths being open to walkers probably came too late to make much difference. But we're hoping to be much busier at the end of the month."

The Ramblers' Association said areas where paths were not being reopened fast enough included Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, Buckinghamshire, Lancashire and Durham.

A steady stream of traffic was flowing towards the South-west throughout the weekend as warm, sunny weather encouraged people to venture out. But the English Tourism Council said that only 14 per cent of Britons had planned a short break this month.

The council warned that about 3,000 businesses and 250,000 jobs were at risk if the Government did not award compensation for foot-and-mouth immediately.

Kate Ashbrook, chairwoman of the Ramblers' Association, said: "If not all the paths are open, it's not easy for people to find out which ones are open and people don't go to the countryside at all. There is no excuse, particularly outside infected areas, for county councils not opening these footpaths."

She added that councils were not following government guidelines on what could be done, or not doing so quickly enough, while many had "given farmers a veto" on the reopening of footpaths where there was no foot-and-mouth risk.

The National Trust had opened 403 sites by the beginning of the weekend, more than 100 of which were open-air locations and included beaches, sections of the countryside and stretches of coastline. But the charity estimates it will still lose about £11.5m this financial year.

Rural areas subject to continuing restrictions were still in crisis. In the North York Moors National Park, where 94 per cent of footpaths join, cross or run alongside farming areas, most routes were shut.

Weston-super-Mare's beach was filling up on Saturday but just 50 miles away, at Porlock on the edge of Exmoor where all paths remained closed, traders were suffering.

The British Tourism Authority predicts a revival of tourism will only come when foreign visitors are convinced the countryside is back to normal. Cancellations are expected to cost the industry £2.5bn.

But it was not all doom and gloom. Brighton Festival organisers reported an increase of visitors on last year. And many tourists visited the New Forest, despite most of it being closed until next weekend. In the Midlands, hundreds of miles of paths and rights of way were reopening.