Want a tourist boom? Blot out the sun

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE far west of Britain, some of the locals fear the position of the stars and the planets could sour the land and bring general chaos and disaster. They may well be right.

This is no Nostradamus-type prediction or obscure Millennial prophecy the Celts of south-west Britain have dreamt up. They are simply looking at the facts.

In a little over a year, the first total eclipse of the sun in mainland Britain for 72 years will engulf Cornwall and parts of south-west Devon in darkness.

It is not simply the fact that the moon will completely block out the sun for two minutes and six seconds (lulling animals to fall asleep and plants to close up) that causes concern. It is rather what comes with it.

This rare meteorological occurrence is to bring a deluge of tourists to cram the high and narrow lanes of Britain's most south-westerly county. Cornwall's beaches and open spaces normally attract a sixth of this number.

Aware of the potential chaos this huge number of star-gazers, hippies, new-agers and the merely curious presents, the local authorities have already set up an action plan. A former British army brigadier is co-ordinating the battle plan.

"I am confident we can deal with the situation as long as we get things in place," said Brigadier Gage Williams. "And of course we still do have time on our hands, but people do need to wake up to it a bit."

Evidence of the interest in the event that has already been generated is clear. Around 85 per cent of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts are already fully booked and agents are reporting fast trade in bookings for rented houses and cottages. Farmers are setting aside fields as impromptu campsites for the hundreds of thousands of people expected to spend the week under canvas and ordinary families are considering taking in paying guests

"We have had hundreds of people ringing up trying to reserve cottages," said Mary Harlow, bookings manager for Classic Cottages. "People have been ringing up from America and all around the world. There is a huge amount of interest in this event. At the moment we are just taking names and we will take the reservations in October."

Some hotels were taking bookings two years ago.

The reason for this interest - some would say hysteria - is largely due to its rarity value. The last eclipse visible from mainland Britain was in 1927; the next will be on 23 September 2090. In 1927, when the eclipse could be seen in the north of England, an estimated 3 million people travelled to see it, despite the lack of cars.

This huge influx of extra visitors will affect the roads, the sewerage system, the supply of food to supermarkets, the number of trains running and the operation of the emergency services. It could even affect the harvest in a region heavily dependant on agriculture.

"It is important that we get things right - people will be coming here with high expectations and we do not want them going home disappointed," said Coun Ken Hughes, chairman of the county's economic development and tourism committee. "We will be getting two types of visitor. Those regular tourists and those people who have never been here before. We want them to go away enamoured with Cornwall."

But it the county manages to organise itself properly, the rewards could be rich. According to the Action Plan, a family providing accommodation for four people for three weeks at pounds 20 a night would gross pounds 1,680.

If 50,000 families did that it would earn a total of pounds 84m. A farmer with a five acre field could put up 1,200 campers. At pounds 5 per person per day, with the site full for one week and half full for three weeks, pounds 105,000 could be generated.

The stakes are high. Despite grants from Brussels, Cornwall remains a poor county - unemployment stands at an average of 6 per cent and there is growing dissatisfaction at the way the county is often treated.