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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Tourism minister Janet Anderson quizzed

Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged people to return to the countryside, but the foot-and-mouth outbreak is still thought to be costing the tourist industry an estimated 120m a week.

Hoteliers in Cumbria, one of the worst hit areas, say their losses amount to 25-30,000 each week.

The English Tourism Council has set up a "tourism cabinet" to work out a foot-and-mouth recovery plan for the industry, with an immediate focus on the vital Easter and May bank holidays.

But is the government doing enough? What practical steps can be taken to help the tourist industry? Are we doing enough to calm fears of foreign travellers?

Tourism minister Janet Anderson took your questions in a live forum.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Highlights of interview:


Newshost:

Is the tourism industry in crisis as a result of the foot-and-mouth epidemic?


Janet Anderson:

I think to say it is in national crisis is probably an exaggeration but there are certainly some areas of the country that are suffering very badly indeed - notably Devon and Cumbria - those are the hardest hit at the moment.


Newshost:

What will be the effect of the announcement this week that the local elections in England and Northern Ireland are going to be delayed until June? What effect will that have on the tourism industry?


Janet Anderson:

I was in the Lake District on Monday of this week and I did a meeting in Ambelside on Monday evening with around 60 people involved in local businesses - tourism etc. - and they said to me to thank the Prime Minister for delaying the local elections and that got a resounding cheer from everyone in the audience.


Newshost:

Some people will be confused to hear that. It is only a week or so ago that we were hearing some people from the tourism industry saying that if we were to delay the elections that would send a bad signal to people from around the world and they would think that the whole country was in crisis.


Janet Anderson:

It is difficult to get that fine balance. On the one hand we were very concerned - and the Prime Minister was certainly concerned - to show some sensitivity to those rural areas which are suffering very badly from the continuation of the foot-and-mouth situation while at the same time recognising that uncertainty can't go on for too long because that would be deeply damaging to the tourism industry.


Janice Ford, Hobbs, New Mexico, USA:

Should I postpone a visit to the UK until the foot-and-mouth scare is over?


Janet Anderson:

I would say to Janice Ford - no, please come. We are very much open for business. It is precisely because people in the States, like Janice, who are considering visits to the UK do have some concerns and are confused about the situation, that I went out to the States a fortnight ago. The visit was to reassure them that this is not BSE, this is not mad cow disease, it doesn't affect humans and it cannot get into the human food chain. I was hearing some real scare stories when I was there - people thought they couldn't eat our food, they couldn't drink our water, they couldn't get around from one town to another. So I think it is important that we make it plain that there is still plenty of things people can enjoy and indeed enjoy in the countryside too.


Newshost:

Isn't it a bit too late though for that message to go across to US tourists because they have already seen the pictures of piles of animals being set on fire and they have heard all the tales of thousands of the animals being slaughtered - won't they have been put off already?


Janet Anderson:

I do think the way the media have portrayed this has been unhelpful to say the least. When I was in the States every television interview I did, was preceded by a picture of burning pyres of animals and I met people in the States who thought there was a pyre of cattle and sheep in every field and of course that is not the situation.

It is important to reassure them that we are actually talking about just over 1% of our total livestock and animals that would have been slaughtered anyway.


Newshost:

It is not for me to defend our profession, but let us make clear that it was the Government's policy that the animals should be slaughtered and then burnt wasn't it?


Janet Anderson:

It certainly was. What I am saying is because the pictures are repeated over and over again, people are under the impression that this is something that is affecting the whole country rather than just very small parts of the country.


The Ramblers' Association, Great Britain:

As visitors are clearly not returning to the countryside until a usable network of paths is open, what more will the Government do to encourage and support local authorities in opening up footpaths identified by MAFF as "safe"?


Newshost:

Now we have heard the Prime Minister say that he was hoping that local authorities would open up these footpaths. Why can't the Prime Minister just ring up councils and say these footpaths are safe - open them up?


Janet Anderson:

Oh, that it were that easy. We are very encouraged by the number of footpaths that are opening up now. I know from my trips around the country - I have been to Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District and so on and I am going back next week - that this is one of the most important things that they want.

The footpaths have been opened in Suffolk, North Lincolnshire and in parts of Devon and Cornwall. We are also looking at the Lake District to see if there is anything we can do there but local authorities have to consult and they have to get MAFF approval. They have done something in Cumbria which I think has been very helpful. They have set up a Cumbrian taskforce bringing together all the local interests, including the farmers and the tourist industry, working together to see what they can open. But it is important to get those footpaths open - but where we can do so safely so that people still can walk.


Philip Wood, Exeter, Devon:

Are Ministers visiting the countryside when they say it is open? Will they be going to the countryside for their Easter holidays?


Janet Anderson:

I will certainly be going there for my Easter holidays. I shall be spending some of it in my rural constituency in Lancashire, Rossendale & Darwen, and I dare say I will do what I did last year and spend the rest of it in the Lake District. However, I have to say that many of my constituents are showing real solidarity with the people of Cumbria and saying "We are going to spend our Easter holidays in the Lakes because they need our support".


Newshost:

So do you think that we can expect Tony Blair and other Ministers will be saying "We are not going to Tuscany this year, we will be off to the Lake District"?


Janet Anderson:

Yes I think you probably can.


Neil McCarthy, London:

Will footpaths in non-infected areas be opened for the Easter Bank holiday?


Janet Anderson:

Well we certainly hope so. There is no reason at all in uninfected areas, footpaths should not be open where there are no livestock near at hand. Provided there are no livestock - and we have just revised the guidance - within 10 metres, there is not a problem. We are urging people to do that in time for Easter because this really is so important.

We have businesses in the worst areas - particularly Devon and Cumbria - that have got no income at all. If they don't get their visitors back then they are going to be in dire straits. However much the Government tries to help - and we are, with deferment of payments like tax, insurance, VAT and rate relief etc - ultimately the real answer is to get their visitors back.


Newshost:

Easter is the start of the big holiday in this country. You were in Cumbria the other day - tourism leaders there were asking if we could have an extra Bank Holiday - an autumn Bank Holiday - to help compensate for the money they fear they are going to lose during this summer season. What is the Government doing about that?


Janet Anderson:

I thought it was an interesting suggestion however I couldn't of course give them any commitment. I am not responsible for allocating Bank Holidays but it is an idea that I have fed into the rural taskforce and it is certainly being considered.


Newshost:

What was the response from the very heart of government - were they keen on the idea?


Janet Anderson:

There has been no response yet - it is being considered.


Nigel Evans, Ribble Valley, Lancs:

When will the next tranche of support be announced for small rural businesses affected by the disease? Why will the Government not consider a small, interest-free loan for our small businesses?


Newshost:

We should explain that there is a Conservative MP called Nigel Evans, representing the Ribble Valley in the House of Commons.


Janet Anderson:

Well I know Nigel well, he has the constituency Ribble Valley which is next-door to my own. We both have rural constituencies so obviously we are both very concerned about this.

It may be possible to do something through the small business service and the loan guarantee scheme - but anything we can do to help small businesses particularly over these immediate cash-flow problems then we will. We hear that message loud and clear and if there is something that we can do, through the small business service, we will certainly do that.


Newshost:

What about people who may find that they are going to lose their jobs because of this crisis or because they are going to be laid off? A lot of people who work in the tourism industry, work on a temporary, part-time basis - is there any extra help that is going to be available for those people?


Janet Anderson:

We have to make sure that they do have access to any benefits to which they are entitled in those circumstances. I understand that in Scotland, many of the employers are using the New Deal scheme to try and find alternative jobs for their employees they are having to lay off. We will continue to do what we can to help.

But ultimately I cannot repeat often enough that the real answer for the rural economy is to get people back into the countryside spending their money and I would urge everyone to do that this Easter.


Davyth, Exeter, Devon:

Now that the Government realises how important tourism is in the UK (particularly in peripheral, economically deprived areas), will tourism organisations receive more funding once foot-and-mouth is over to kick-start tourism and help bring overseas visitors back to Britain?


Janet Anderson:

They certainly will. I keep saying that I am very pleased in one sense that people do now understand that tourism is very important to the economy - as Minister for Tourism I would say that. I am very sad that it has had to happen in this way but we are making extra funding available for the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourism Council now to do some immediate marketing.

However, we do recognise that when this is all over there will be a need for substantial funding to get confidence back in Britain as a visitor destination. That funding will be available.


Newshost:

The whole question of confidence is obviously an important one and I know you have set up phone lines that people can call. However, there have been complaints that when people ring up they can't actually get clear information and that only increases the fear that there is some sort of crises and that information cannot be got to them.


Janet Anderson:

I hope that is not the case. In fact I am going down myself to personally take some calls at the helpline run by the English Tourism Council in Chiswick because I want to see for myself how this is working. Now I hope it is working well - if it isn't we will make any necessary changes because the most important thing is for people to get accurate information about what they can and cannot do.


Samuel Logan, Philadelphia, PA, USA:

Where can I find absolutely reliable information? I have looked on a number of websites and they all seem to have conflicting statements about what is open and what is not.


Janet Anderson:

For him in the States the best way is to go to the Visit Britain website which is run by the British Tourist Authority or to ring the British Tourist Authority call centre in New York. This is the best avenue for information.


Newshost:

So you are expecting that American tourists will come to Britain this summer?


Janet Anderson:

We certainly hope so because we had 4.5 million of them last year - they spent 2.5 billion - we need there business and not only that, we do value the warm relationship between our two countries. So we do hope that they will come back this year.


Newshost:

Just to reinforce the point. You and your colleagues, including the Prime Minister, you are all going to be setting an example by going on holiday in Britain this year?


Janet Anderson:

We certainly are. There is so much to see in the English countryside it would be a great shame to miss it.


John Voisey, Newport, South Wales, UK:

I am told that "the countryside is open for business". I am a scuba diver. So is my daughter. My other daughter is a kayaker. Please tell me which parts of the country are open for us to go diving and kayaking this Easter like we did last year?


Janet Anderson:

Yes of course he will be able to do these activities.

When I was in the Lakes on Monday, I was in a boat on Lake Windemere. There is not a problem. There are lots of activities that people can do and sailing and boating is certainly one of them.

That is why the British Waterways are looking at opening up canals and waterways that have previously been closed. There was probably no need to close them in the first place although I think people did, quite rightly, play safe at the beginning of the problem. But a lot of it is now being reopened - our canals, our waterways, our footpaths - the National Trust have opened 200 properties so have English Heritage. So the countryside is beginning to be open again.

I want as much of it as possible to be open by Easter so that people can get out into the countryside and please spend their money because the local businesses need it.


Newshost: :

You are confident then that much of the countryside will be open for tourists to visit by the Easter holidays?


Janet Anderson:

Yes, a lot of it is open now. There is a misconception that things are closed.

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