British tourism has discovered a secret weapon to keep us all visiting, eating in and staying in the old country. From the Orkneys to Cornwall, and Anglesey to Suffolk, cities, towns, villages and resorts are finding that nothing pulls in the tourists like a festival.
Industry experts estimate there are now nearly 4,000 of them, celebrating everything from kites to choral works, garlic to rhubarb, and Agatha Christie to scarecrows. Kim Hart, administrator at the British Arts Festivals Association (Bafa), said: "Our research shows that this sector has exploded in the past five years. It is a staggeringly expanding market." Bafa, which has just completed a study of this growth, believes that as many as half of all the thousands of festivals in the UK began life after 2001.
There are now at least 370 music festivals, 150 film festivals, 160 devoted to the arts in general, and scores more concentrating on books, individual authors, dance and, like the Manchester International Festival in June and July, on premieres of new works.
And it will soon be difficult to go more than a few miles in the summer without running into a food festival. Some, such as the British Asparagus Festival at Bretforton in Worcestershire, the new Cream Tea Festival in Paignton and Brixham in Devon, and the Loch Lomond Food and Drink Festival, use an area's traditional dishes. Others, like Glasgow's Organic Food Festival, do not.
These events draw enormous numbers of visitors. Bafa's study of 193 leading arts festivals showed they attracted five million, contributing millions to local economies. Brighton estimated that, for every £1 spent on tickets for its 2004 festival, visitors spent a further £22 in local businesses.
Small wonder that some towns cannot cram enough festivals into the calendar. Weymouth, for instance, has no fewer than 19, ranging from Greek wine and culture to ones devoted to lifeboats, oysters and seafood, maritime modelling, angling and beer.
Many festivals are the work of councils, but some were started by local enthusiasts. The End of the Pier International Film Festival in Bognor is a classic case. First held in 2001 at a small hall near the railway station, it grew without any official help. By its fourth year it was getting noticed ("Is Bognor the new Cannes?" asked Sussex Life), and last year there were appearances by Ken Russell and 10 days of features, documentaries, shorts, awards and workshops. This year, Radio Cape Cod starring Tamzin Outhwaite is among films premiering at the festival.