Tourists urged to visit three safe havens

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The Independent Online

Downing Street attempted to limit the damage to Britain's rural economy yesterday, urging people to remember that prospects for tourism were largely unaffected in regions of the country with no foot-and-mouth disease.

Downing Street attempted to limit the damage to Britain's rural economy yesterday, urging people to remember that prospects for tourism were largely unaffected in regions of the country with no foot-and-mouth disease.

Ministers are concerned that warnings and restrictions may have been taken too literally and that many people believe all holidays in rural Britain are now impossible.

A No10 spokesman said west Wales, East Anglia and the Scottish Highlands were free of the disease and would hopefully stay free, meaning there was no need for restrictions in areas away from farms and livestock. That brought little relief for people such as Stuart Nicol, who has just seen £10,000 worth of business cancelled in one week. Mr Nicol, who runs Farr Cottage Lodge and Activity Centre in Corpach near Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis, said he had lost 70 per cent of his March bookings and walk-in trade had stopped.

"If this continues for any length of time, the chance of survival for small businesses such as mine is quite slim,"Mr Nichol said.

"Soon we will have to stop maintenance and upgrade work, which will have a knock-on effect on the whole community. Corpach means 'place of the dead', and that is quite apt at the moment."

The Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board has called for restrictions to be eased, urging landowners not to impose blanket bans and to keep open footpaths in forests, where the risk is low. A spokeswoman said tourism contributed £420m a year to the region and the foot-and-mouth crisis was in danger of seriously damaging the industry. "It is really devastating, particularly after the Madonna wedding which was the catalyst for the Highlands becoming the in-place to be," she said. "We had seen quite a big rise in bookings so it is all the more tragic that we are now getting all these cancellations."

The cancellations meant visitors were missing out on "unbelievable" weather in the region, along with perfect conditions for skiing, she added.

Scotland's campaign to overcome the crisis hit a hitch when the Scottish Tourist Board advertised Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire on three poster sites in Paris, despite it being closed because of foot-and-mouth. The castle, the backdrop for Franco Zeffirelli's movie version of Hamlet, was closed last week by its owners, the National Trust for Scotland. A tourist board spokeswoman, Barbara Clark, said the aim of the campaign was to encourage French people to visit Scotland in the summer, when, hopefully, the outbreak would be under control.

In other areas, the Government's efforts to prop up the tourist industry appeared to be having little effect, with all three disease-free regions reporting a drastic rise in cancellations and a fall in new bookings.

The Welsh Tourist Board estimates Wales is losing £10m per week in lost tourism revenue, which is expected to rise to £20m in April, a time which would normally bring a surge of bookings.

A spokeswoman for Tourism South and West Wales said a survey of its members showed a steady increase in cancellations, though dozens of the region's attractions were still open. The East Anglia Tourist Board reported similar problems, though Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk have had no cases of foot-and-mouth.

"A lot of our B'n'Bs have diversified from farming and it is having a dreadful impact on them already," said a spokeswoman. "Telephone inquiries are drying up just when we would expect them to be hotting up for Easter."

On the Isle of Wight, where tourism creates one in three jobs and is worth £260m a year, accommodation bookings have fallen by between 25 and 50 per cent.

There have been no foot-and-mouth cases and the island's tourist office has produced a guide identifying low-risk activities in an attempt to reassure visitors, who have to walk and drive over sterilised mats on entry and exit.

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