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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Tourism numbers hit record low
Graph showing number of foreign holidaymakers visiting the UK
The number of holidaymakers visiting the UK has slumped to its lowest level on record, government officials have said, blaming the foot-and-mouth epidemic for much of the decline.

Just 719,000 overseas tourists visited the UK in April, 21% fewer than the same month a year ago, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said in a report giving one of the first insights into the damage the foot-and-mouth outbreak has wrought on Britain's tourism industry.

The figure, seasonally adjusted to take account of factors such as the timing of Easter, is the lowest in an ONS archive dating back to 1996.

And foot-and-mouth, which has prompted the closure of footpaths and many tourism attractions, must be responsible for much of the decline, said Josh Lovegrove, who oversaw production of Friday's report.

"We have heard much about the difficulties the outbreak has caused for the tourism industry," Mr Lovegrove told BBC News Online.

"These figures are the start of the process to show the extent of that."

The slump in tourism numbers was accompanied by a 16% decline in spending by all foreign visitors to the UK during the month, usually the busiest in the earnings calendar.

Long-term decline

The number of holidaymakers visiting Britain has undergone a long-term decline since a peak of 12.8 million in 1997.

Mike Hodgkinson, chief executive, BAA
Mike Hodgkinson: "Disease hit passenger numbers"
Poor weather has been blamed for accelerating that trend last year.

But, thanks to the timing of Easter, tourism numbers this April would probably have risen were it not for "special factors" such as the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the ONS said.

"The number of visits by overseas residents in April was about 20% lower than might have been predicted," Friday's report said.

Mr Lovegrove said: "It looked as though numbers were recovering a little until March, and then the steep decline in April."

The findings reflect reports from individual firms, such as BAA, the UK's top-ranking airports operator, which on Monday warned that foot-and-mouth would "continue to have an impact for the next few months".

"The disease... undoubtedly reduced passenger traffic growth in March and April as in-bound tourists delayed or cancelled visits to the UK," BAA chief executive Mike Hodgkinson said.

Continental effect

Analysis of unadjusted ONS data, which the office warned must be treated with caution, indicates that the number of Western European tourists to Britain has shown the greatest decline, falling 30% in April compared with the same month in 2000.

The number of US tourists was, at 162,000, broadly the same as last April.

The overall number of foreign visitors to the UK, including those on business trips, was, at 2.0 million, less than 5% down on last year, adjusted figures show.

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