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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 07:18 GMT 08:18 UK
Why rural tourism is no picnic
By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Highland cattle
Where there's muck, is there also brass?

There have been cows on Colemans Farm for 450 years, but these days they're just for show.

Even on a drenched autumn day, the farm is one of the Isle of Wight's perkier tourist attractions: flocks of squealing schoolchildren make friends with bleating goats and clucking chickens.

When Neil and Karen Dickson bought Colemans in 1999, it was a working farm. But it had a licence to open to the public, and the island location persuaded the Dicksons that it could make more money farming tourists.

And so it proved. On their first day, the Dicksons had 600 visitors; last year, they had 60,000, and growth rates have been 30-40% annually. The farm is now profitable, and the Dicksons are planning a big expansion next year.

"We seem to have hit on something basic that children really love," says Mrs Dickson.

Ups and downs

For the past couple of years, tourism has been the unsung success story of the British countryside.

Tourism employment
The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 seemed a catastrophe for the business. Across the UK, 80% of country parks, 90% of farms and more than one-third of historic properties were closed to visitors. And the trade won none of the lavish post-epidemic compensation that went to farmers.

Since then, however, the recovery has been far brisker than anyone predicted.

"In a way, foot-and-mouth was good news," says Nigel Embry, chief executive of Farm Stay UK, a network of 1,100 agri-tourism businesses. "It created awareness about what the countryside has to offer."

Now, tourism supports 380,000 jobs in rural areas, more than making up for a decline of more than 150,000 in the agricultural workforce. Overall, its contribution to rural economic output is reckoned to be almost 14bn.

Pins and needles

The lure of easy money is strong. But Nick Evans, who runs the Centre for Rural Research at University College Worcester, warns that tourism is no panacea for every cash-strapped farmer.

For a start, he says, the realistic profit to be made from a tourism sideline is little better than pin-money.

"Self-catering accommodation ventures are the ones that most farmers want to diversify into," he says.

"Unfortunately, this is also the form of diversification venture that most frequently fails to be successful."

Farms with grander ambitions often get parcelled up in red tape: B&Bs aiming to accomodate more than six guests, for example, are required to comply wth demanding fire regulations; farmers offering land for more than five caravans have to seek a licence from the local authority.

"Setting up a tourism venture can require a large initial capital investment - money that struggling farm businesses simply do not have," he says.

Fitting in nicely

Nonetheless, there are certain unarguable fundamental benefits.

Farm employment
If expectations of income are low, tourism can be run as a complementary sideline. Farms tend to have plentiful barely-used space, ripe for conversion; a B&B or holiday cottage can be run by a less busy family member.

A full makeover like Colemans Farm demands effort, but taking in the odd guest need not disrupt the settled habits of farming life: farm-stay visitors actively want a whiff of manure.

And tourism may be vaguely seasonal, but often in ways that suit a farmer's schedule: the peak for many tourist businesses would be in high summer, before the demands of the harvest kick in.

The government is certainly convinced. As part of a package of measures after the foot-and-mouth outbreak, it has shifted responsibility for rural tourism onto the Regional Development Agencies. These RDAs, which have previously tended to focus more on urban needs, will be obliged to think of ways to fit tourism into broader rural regeneration plans, including investment in everything from education to transport.

Pretty it ain't

All very laudable. But it might not be wise to get too misty-eyed about farm tourism.

Karen Dickson
It's all pretty basic, Mrs Dickson insists
Roger Turner, head of economics at the Countryside Agency, which helps coordinate rural affairs for the government, warns that tourism may be getting more attention than its success merits.

"Tourism is very high profile, but that's not the same as being regenerative," he says.

"Sectors like health or retailing account for the vast majority of jobs in the countryside, but the policy emphasis is still on traditional industries such as farming and tourism. It seems strange."

Despite its growth, tourism makes up just 9% of rural employment; manufacturing, meanwhile, employs one in four rural workers, and is growing at a fair clip.

Policy, then, could be being influenced by a sentimental and unrealistic view of the rural economy. The truth is uglier - but possibly far more prosperous.

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