Cumbria set for tourist boom as Japanese pilgrims flock to the home of Beatrix Potter

Japanese government ministers are generally too busy to greet visiting hoteliers from Britain. But when Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggywinkle are on the agenda they make an exception.

Kimitaka Fujino, Japan's Tourism Minister, hosted a delegation from Cumbria in Tokyo yesterday to discuss a film which seems destined to bring Japanese tourists flocking to north-west England. Miss Potter, a Beatrix Potter biopic, stars Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

A hint of the Japanese riches the film might bring came four years ago when bookings to Britain tripled for the 100th anniversary of Peter Rabbit, allied to the popularity of David Beckham after Japan's 2002 World Cup. The film, which premieres in January, promises to be of far greater significance, and filming for it in the Lake District has already inspired a bronze statue of three children releasing Jemima Puddleduck, known locally as the Duck of the North, which was unveiled last month in Windermere by Zellweger.

The reasons for Japan's fascination with Potter are complex but they stem from the important part her books play in Japanese schoolrooms. They are used because Potter's use of language is straightforward and her sentences are short. It has also been suggested that her stories appeal because they are rooted in nature and play to Japanese schoolgirls' love of kawairashii, or cuteness. As a result, Cumbria receives 11,000 visits a year from Japanese tourists, who contribute 5 per cent of its tourist income. Most visit Hill Top cottage, which was Potter's home.

The Lake District cannot be accused of failing to prepare itself for the imminent rush. Those arriving from the Far East can expect some highly enthusiastic pronunciations of the word yokoso (welcome), courtesy of a training programme being run by the Cumbria Tourist Board.

Hoteliers are also being introduced to the culture behind the Japanese art of bowing. "It would be easy to overlook something like the appropriate welcome so that forms a part of how hotel staff are being trained," the tourist board's Luke Dicicco said.

The Japanese delight in o-mayage, the giving and receiving of gifts, is being handled more effectively, too. The Japanese tend to buy about 12 T-shirts and 20 fridge magnets each and want each one in a separate trust bag so they can be given as individual gifts.

The Japanese obsession with Beatrix Potter has had its problems. The National Trust, which runs Hill Top, issued appeals in Japanese 10 years ago, urging them to go somewhere else, as they struggled to cope with the sheer volume of visitors. At the time, the shop next to Hill Top cottage and farm, which Potter bought in 1905, had the highest turnover of any National Trust shop. The Japanese make up a third of Hill Top's visitors.

Cumbria has had its share of troubles since foot-and-mouth struck in 2001, and representatives from other Lake District attractions, including the Blackwell Arts and Crafts house near Windermere and the Coniston copper mines, are on the trade mission funded by the North-west Development Agency. "We know the Japanese are among our biggest-spending overseas visitors," said Penny Watson, the tourist board's representative on the mission. "We look forward to welcoming more [of them]."

But Richard Foster, the general manager of the World of Beatrix Potter, has warned against overdoing the enthusiasm. "We have to be careful not to make a rather bizarre version of Tokyo in the Lake District," he said. "You can get hamstrung on how many bows to do when handing over a cup of tea. They are quite happy with a smile and a 'Hello'."

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