Disease killing advance bookings in the U.K.

BIRMINGHAM, England -- While U.K. government officials reported that Britain's hoof-and-mouth crisis had reached epidemic proportions and could drag on for months, tourism officials and local suppliers at the British Travel Trade Fair here March 21 to 22 were attempting to cope with the downturn in business.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board reported a 7% drop year-to-date in the tourism sector.

In England, the falloff in tourism is costing the industry up to $250 million a week, said Mary Lynch, chief executive of the English Tourism Council. She predicted the number could double if the falloff continues into summer.

Regional operators are experiencing the effects of the outbreak and its subsequent travel restrictions to varying degrees.

"We're not taking any walking tours at the moment -- we can't. Easter is going to be the biggest decider [of how well or poorly this year will turn out]. That is generally when the season kicks off," said Linda Reohorn, tourism officer for Wales Countryside Holidays in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

While some operators reported cancellations, others said the biggest concern was the lack of advance bookings.

Ann Knowles, owner of Cotswolds Walking Holidays, based in Cheltenham, England, said, "The Cotswolds is not infected, but we are surrounded on all sides by it.

"March and April are our busiest booking season, [but] since the outbreak we've had no new bookings.

"We are allowing people to cancel with a full refund if [it's] six weeks before departure," Knowles said, adding that "we've had great sympathy from Americans, [but] you can't live on sympathy alone."

Tony Home, director of Dorset, England-based Gentle Journeys, which specializes in garden tours, said his firm has had some cancellations but "because we deal with a more intellectual clientele, they are able to get beyond the frightening headlines in the U.S."

American BritAgent specialists and trade reporters attending the Birmingham event were hosted on post-show itineraries to various parts of England. Among the sites visited were Windsor Castle, Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral and Rochester Cathedral.

The trip was affected once by hoof-and-mouth travel restrictions, when a planned visit to Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens, in southeast England, was canceled.

In New York, Tim Lovell, British Tourist Authority vice president, USA, said he was "confident that the authorities are doing all they can to get [the outbreak] under control."

Meanwhile, he noted, "there is plenty to see and do that doesn't involve affected areas. Lively towns and cities like those featured in the BTA's U.K. City Culture program are full of attractions.

"Also, British villages with their ancient history and outstanding architecture continue to receive visitors."

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