Pity the poor farmers, plagued by fear and doubt. But save your tears for the British tourist industry

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The Independent Online
The misery visited on farmers by the foot-and-mouth crisis is dwarfed by the scale of devastation that lies ahead for the vastly more important British tourism industry.

The misery visited on farmers by the foot-and-mouth crisis is dwarfed by the scale of devastation that lies ahead for the vastly more important British tourism industry.

New estimates suggest that the epidemic has already deprived the country of £5bn in lost profits. And there is mounting anecdotal evidence of the damage being wrought to businesses that rely for their revenue on holidaymakers and day-trippers.

Already, pubs are closing down, hotels are receiving cancellations and turnstile receipts at visitor attractions are dwindling. And it will get worse.

Even as the Prime Minister leads a government campaign to convince the world that Britain is open for business, senior figures in the tourism industry say it is too late to avert catastrophe.

Tourism is one of Britain's most important money-earners, generating £64bn a year ­ more than 6 per cent of the total economy ­ compared with the £18bn that comes from agriculture. But the industry is vulnerable because four-fifths of its 127,000 enterprises are small companies employing fewer than 10 people and operating on low profit margins. In many cases, business needs to dry up for only a few weeks to send them to the wall.

"The losses suffered by a business of that size so far could easily be their annual profit," warned Ken Kelling, a spokesman for the English Tourism Council. Rural tourism was losing £100m of business a week with affected areas such as Cumbria losing £10m.

Tour operators said there were signs of a fall in numbers of foreign visitors, who brought in £16bn to the UK in 1999.

Richard Tobias, the chief executive of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association (BITOA), said that bookings from overseas were about 25 per cent lower than in normal years.

The biggest drop has been in visitors from America, who spent £2.54bn last year, 20 per cent of annual tourism revenue. Mr Tobias said: "There is more misinformation about the situation in the US and that's bad news because 10 per cent of US spending is worth a lot more than 10 per cent of any other country."

Andrew Parsons, the head of marketing at Polglobe, a booking service, said: "Indications are that the Americans are staying away. This is endorsed by the fact that bookings via the internet are down 5 per cent ."

As visitor numbers have dried up, tourist attractions have suffered. Country homes, the essential ingredient for any American's trip round the British Isles, are reporting plummeting gate receipts.

The Duchess of Devonshire said visitors were shunning Chatsworth, her family's Derbyshire seat ­ even though there was no outbreak of foot-and-mouth near by.

The estate's 166 seasonal staff had been laid off, she said. "Mixed messages fly through the air. One minister tells us not to go into the country. Another suggests tourists should go to the North-west, presumably to see and smell 80,000 rotting carcasses. What a way to run a country."

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions said some of its members, such as Blackpool Pleasure Beach, were 30 per cent down on last year. "We are now getting into the season when foreign tourists come in large numbers and we expect a dip," said Robin Broke, the association's director.

Teresa Wickham, the chairwoman of the London Tourist Board, expressed the fear that Americans, who are the bulwark of the London tourist trade, would be put off travelling to Britain altogether.

"A lack of understanding about the disease and negative perceptions created by overseas media coverage may lead people to cancel their time in London," she said.

The crisis has already delivered a body blow to the pub industry. The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association said a survey to be published on Monday would show sales down by more than 10 per cent.