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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 17:54 GMT
Rural Britain 'still open'
Dartmoor National Park
Tourism in areas like Dartmoor has effectively shut down
Large parts of the UK's rural tourist industry are still open for business, Culture Secretary Chris Smith has insisted.

The English Tourism Council (ETC) estimates the foot-and-mouth crisis is losing the industry 100m a week, said Mr Smith in a Commons statement on Wednesday.

"Rural Britain is not closed as some would have us believe."

Chris Smith
Culture Secretary
Those losses could become 250m a week if the foot-and-mouth outbreak continued into the main summer tourist season.

The culture secretary spoke of "damaging media coverage" affecting the tourist trade.

Mr Smith said bookings from within the UK and from overseas were being cancelled just at the time of year when trade usually picked up.

"Rural Britain is not closed as some would have us believe," he told MPs.

Cancellations and loss of business had to be reported but they would not help the situation, especially abroad, where the context was less well understood.

The main effect was on countryside areas but tourism in cities and towns had also been hit.

Chris Smith
Smith: Variety of attractions are still available

"There is a whole variety of good quality tourism attractions which are available to people right the way across rural Britain and the more consistently we put that message across, the better it will be for our hard-pressed tourism industry," continued Mr Smith.

He suggested an advertising campaign would be needed when the disease was eradicated to draw back lost trade.

'Come back' message

"We have to make sure that as soon as the outbreak is over the message of 'come back to the countryside' must be made loud and clear."

The government would be looking with "great care and great sympathy" in coming weeks at further help for the stricken rural economy.

Brushing aside questions of compensation, Mr Smith said the best thing to do at the moment was to encourage people to go to the countryside for safe activities.

The culture secretary added that the government was not ruling out sporting events.

Such decisions should be left to the governing bodies of sports, which should take a "common sense" approach.

Conservative Shadow Culture Secretary Peter Ainsworth said rural tourism provided 400,000 jobs.

Tory MP Peter Ainsworth
Ainsworth: Jobs are being lost

"Some of those jobs are now at risk, with employees already laid off or asked if they would take unpaid leave," he said.

He raised concerns about the idea, flagged by Environment Minister Michael Meacher, of defining 'safe' and 'unsafe' zones.

Mr Smith suggested this issue would be addressed on Thursday by Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown.

Tax relief plea

Mr Ainsworth pressed too for short-term tax relief for affected businesses, as well as new government loans.

Liberal Democrat MP Robert Maclennan voiced concerns that 120,000 small businesses risked not only profit losses but bankruptcy.

Like Mr Smith, he said eradicating the disease was the most important factor but there had also to be "a reassurance message".

An ETC spokesman welcomed Mr Smith's message that the countryside was still open and stressed the need for a marketing initiative to retain confidence in the countryside as a tourist destination.

That issue would be on the agenda when industry leaders meet Tourism Minister Janet Anderson on thursday to discuss possible help, he said.

The Scottish Tourist Board (STB) estimate the crisis is costing the industry in Scotland 10m a week.

That total would rise, predicted an STB spokesman, although some businesses had already lost up to 10% of their annual turnover in recent weeks.

The board is drawing up a recovery plan to present to the Scottish Executive.

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14 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Foot-and-mouth victims promised help
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