Countryside is open for business, say ministers

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The Independent Online

The government insistedthe countryside was open for business yesterday when ministers tried to counter a drastic slump in rural tourism.

The government insistedthe countryside was open for business yesterday when ministers tried to counter a drastic slump in rural tourism.

Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said the tourism industry was already losing £100m a week because of the outbreak, and warned it may rise to £250m if the crisis continued into the peak holiday season. He said the tourist industry hadalready experienced a sharp fall in the number of visitors entering Britain and an even greater decline in tourism within the country.

The international impact of the foot-and-mouth virus has been so great that some foreign visitors have cancelled weekend breaks to London.

But yesterday, Mr Smith urged people not to shun normal life in the country and insisted that sporting fixtures could go ahead.

Answering an emergency Commons question on the crisis, he said: "The first priority, in everyone's interest, has of course to be to tackle the disease itself.

"It is also important, however, to get over the message that there is still a lot of hugely enjoyable recreation which visitors can find outside our cities. Rural Britain is not closed, as some would have us believe."

Tony Blair said the industry had been "devastated" by the outbreak while the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, also said there was a downturn in overseas visitors. Mr Brown repeated his call for people to stay away from livestock farms, but insisted that the countryside was not out of bounds.

Ewen Cameron, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, said: "Nearly 70 per cent of visitors go to the countryside to visit heritage attractions and theme parks, local restaurants and pubs, or to fish, swim or sail. Yet the message people are getting is that the countryside is shut. Many of these activities will support the countryside in this time of crisis rather than harm it."

Mr Smith said he had been in close contact with the English Tourism Council, the British Tourist Authority, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies over the past two weeks.

"The impact is mainly in the rural areas throughout the UK, but it is also affecting our towns and cities too, with visitors from Europe and elsewhere deterred from coming here at all," Mr Smith said. "People in many hotels and attractions have been laid off. Businesses are closed and some parts of the countryside are very quiet indeed. The holiday season is gradually starting again and the usual growth in bookings is not materialising.

"The English Tourism Council has advised us that the loss of business is probably of the order of £100m a week and they have suggested that the impact might even reach £250m a week if the outbreaks continue well into the main season. These are serious losses."

Mr Smith said the Government was not recommending the cancellation of sporting events. "Any decisions will be for governing bodies of sport, who should take a common sense approach which is above all proportionate to a realistic appraisal of the risk involved.

"Therefore sporting, just like any other, activity should not take place within affected areas."