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Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 07:55 GMT
Stratford's winter of discontent?
Half-timbered houses
Stratford-upon-Avon's history is a valuable asset
Stratford-upon-Avon has long been a magnet for American visitors. Six weeks ago, in the wake of the 11 September attacks, BBC News Online found the town's tourist industry badly shaken. Have things improved?

With its half-timbered Tudor houses, its picturesque waterside setting and links to William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon has always been a magnet for tourists.

And it has always been particularly loved by Americans, who make up the biggest number of overseas visitors to this bustling Midlands town.

Vacancies sign
Hotels have room, but that's normal for this time of year
So when Americans began to cancel their holidays to Europe in the wake of the 11 September attacks, it seemed life in Stratford was about to change radically.

With one-third of the town's population working in tourism, there were grave concerns for peoples' livelihoods, especially since the foot-and-mouth epidemic earlier in the year had averted many visitors.

The impact of the attacks was felt immediately. Hotel bookings were cancelled as the Ryder Cup golf tournament, due to be held close by, was postponed until next year.

Among those involved in selling Stratford as a destination to tourists, there was widespread uncertainty about what would happen next.

Better news

Two weeks after 11 September, South Warwickshire Tourism told BBC News Online that marketing campaigns had been suspended.

I was pleasantly surprised because I was expecting a big fat zero

Alex Holmes on tourism growth
Six weeks later, and many of these have now been re-scheduled, says Alex Holmes, director of South Warwickshire Tourism.

And the prophets of doom have been proved pleasantly wrong.

In October, figures for over-the-counter bookings at the town's tourist information centre were, surprisingly, slightly better than last year.

"The number of visitors to the centre was 6% up on last year and accommodation bookings were up 3%," says Mr Holmes.

American visitors have been down in number, but, on these figures, only marginally.

Nigel Hawthorne as King Lear
Shakespeare, a one-time resident of Stratford, is a powerful draw
"It's only a snapshot but I was pleasantly surprised because I was expecting a big fat zero, or even worse."

The bigger picture certainly gives cause for concern. According to the National Office of Statistics, visits to Britain by North Americans were 17% down in September compared to a year before.

Experts believe the September decline almost certainly understated the full impact, since the figures are compiled as visitors leave Britain, not as they arrive.

It was likely that about half those leaving in September actually began their holiday before the 11th of that month.

'Bumpy ride'

But while block bookings by American tourist groups are down 40% at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, hotel owners seem to be bearing up.

"It has been a bit of a bumpy ride," says John Reynolds of the Shakespeare Hotel in Stratford.

The real test will be the second and third quarters next year

Alex Holmes
"Coming on the back of foot-and-mouth the downturn has cost us a considerable sum."

Yet there are signs that any revival will be home grown.

Over the winter the hotel trade throughout the country may get a lifeline from British people who, like Americans, decide to holiday at home.

"There's been a marked increase with local people going to the theatre or having a weekend away," says Mr Reynolds.

"We are packed out at the weekends at the moment."

'Better than normal'

He is more worried about the general state of the economy which, he says, could spell trouble for not just his hotel but the entire sector.

Meanwhile Neil Gray, manager of the smaller Grosvenor hotel in Stratford, says business is better than normal for the time of year.

"The downturn in American trade has not really hit us at all," says Mr Gray.

"Our client base is mostly people from the UK. We seem to have no problems at the moment".

According to Alex Holmes, it is probably too early to pin down the real impact on tourism of the terror attacks.

"Things tend to be quieter now. The real test will be the second and third quarters next year - April to September. That's when tourism really takes off here."

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