Daytrippers head for the shops, not the countryside

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The British public went shopping over the Easter weekend rather than taking more traditional day trips into a countryside still blighted by widespread foot-and-mouth restrictions.

The British public went shopping over the Easter weekend rather than taking the more traditional day trips into a countryside still blighted by widespread foot-and-mouth restrictions.

While the epidemic and disappointing weather combined to keep holidaymakers out of rural areas, the big shopping malls experienced a mini- boom. Lakeside and Bluewater, in the South-east, and many Arndale centres in the North reported "brisk" business over the weekend.

Mike Redfearn, the duty manager at Lakeside in Thurrock, Essex, said that it had been "exceptionally busy for the time of year". He said: "The weather has been good here and I think a lot of people have chosen to go shopping instead of going away." The centre estimated that more than 50,000 people would have visited by the end of business yesterday.

Holidaymakers who did venture away from home chose the big visitor attractions or the seaside, with some destinations reporting record attendance figures.

One of England's most popular tourist attractions, Warwick Castle, said that it had more visitors than for the same period last year. A spokeswomen, Alison Hart, said: "We have had a very good weekend with a lot of visitors."

In the South-east, visitor numbers were 50 per cent up on last year at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire, and 10 per cent up at Dover Castle. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Leeds Castle in Kent were also doing well. Resorts including Blackpool, Bourne-mouth, Torquay and Eastbourne reported an increase in numbers on last year.

But all those gains were made at the expense of traditional rural Easter destinations such as the Lake District and the South-west.

Despite government assurances that the countryside was "open for business", most rural areas were well down on last year's figures.

Takings for businesses in the New Forest, which was able to open only nine car parks to the public because of foot-and-mouth restrictions, were down. The New Forest tourism spokeswoman, Christine Aimes, said many of the area's hotels had vacancies for next weekend.

The numbers of visitors to Henley-on-Thames, Ludlow in Shropshire, Sedburgh and Ullswater, both in Cumbria, and Shakespeare Trust properties in Stratford- upon-Avon were all down.

Small hotels and bed and breakfast businesses in rural areas have been hit hard. Tom Howard, who runs The Ship Inn at Newnham-on-Severn, in the heart of the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, said he would normally expect all of his six guest rooms ­ which cost £20 for a single and £40 for a double ­ to be full. But yesterday the accommodation remained empty.

Mr Howard, 37, said: "At this time of the year we are usually full and very busy ­ people enjoy going round the Forest attractions. A lot of people will go for walks and then pop in here for Sunday lunch or a drink. But the whole Forest is really a no-go area now. There is no tourist trade here at the moment."

An English Tourism Council spokesman said: "It seems that the rural areas where there was foot-and-mouth have done less well. It seems the image of burning funeral pyres has had an effect on people."

But he said the Government's attempt to encourage people to visit the countryside might have had some success. "Coastal paths and areas around them have done well compared with some rural areas such as the South-west, where the visitor figures are well down."

A survey taken on Saturday for the English Tourism Council showed that 78 per cent of people agreed that there were still plenty of things to do in the countryside. However, nearly half of the people questioned (46 per cent) agreed that most places in the countryside were closed. The future for hoteliers in the spring and early summer months remains bleak, with many owners reporting few bookings.

Leaders of the international travel industry arrive in Britain today to begin a four-day summit, organised by the British Tourism Authority to dispel myths about the disease's impact. Forty representatives from tourist groups across the world are expected to take part. The Centre for Economics and Business Research calculates that £5bn will be lost from the £61bn tourist industry this year.