Hoof-and-mouth threat takes toll on tours

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NEW YORK -- The scary sounding hoof-and-mouth disease has left an estimated 40 million rural acres -- or three-quarters of Great Britain -- off limits to travelers, threatening to spoil the shoulder and high seasons for U.S. suppliers to the U.K. and, to a lesser degree, Ireland.

Suppliers who potentially will be hardest hit are those specializing in walking and hiking tours.

Lawrence, Kan.-based Maupintour canceled the May 12 and June 9 departures of its Walking England's Cotswolds MaupinAdventures trip, a spokeswoman said.

At Backroads, in Berkeley, Calif., company officials said they will cancel programs "rather than run anything less than a great trip."

"If the travel restrictions [remain in place much longer] we will cancel, and offer to rebook clients on other programs in other countries," a spokeswoman said.

The firm's programs begin in early June, and the decision to cancel would have to be made at least 45 days out from departure, she said.

The highly contagious disease, which began to appear in late February, poses a major economic threat to the farming industry and prompts the slaughter of infected animals.While the disease is normally not contagious to humans and has no effect on the tourist industry in cities, reports already have put rural tourism losses at about $180 million per week.

Travel restrictions aimed at containing the disease extend to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as to the Republic of Ireland, although no cases of the disease have been confirmed there.

According to the British Tourist Authority, selected properties managed by English Heritage and the National Trust are closed, as are national parks and zoos, and scores of nature trails and footpaths.

Sydney Lima, product manager, Europe, for Collette Vacations in Pawtucket, R.I., said her firm as been "getting calls constantly" about hoof and mouth.

"We're going to enforce our cancellation policy," she said, "because humans can't get [the disease]."

That's the tack Hoboken, N.J.-based ACP Marketing/ BritRail is taking, too.

A spokeswoman said the company has had inquiries about its cancellation policy and some cancellations as a direct result of the outbreak.

But since it poses no threat to humans and there has been no disruption to rail service or restrictions on rail travel, BritRail is charging the standard 15% cancellation fee on rail passes.

Some escorted operators, like Globus and Cosmos, in Littleton, Colo., are altering their coach itineraries.

"We have put together some viable alternatives for a quality travel experience," said Philip Gordon, chief operating officer.

For example, he said, in Ireland a tour of Galway and a visit to the Hunt Museum in Limerick will replace a stop at the Irish National Stud farm.

In England, motorcoaches will continue to stop at Stonehenge for picture taking, but clients won't be able to walk around the grounds.

"Travel agents are calling with clients who are not happy and do not want to go, and the majority of those [people] have been rebooked at later dates," he said.

"[Or] we will rebook them on alternative programs in other areas of Europe, at no fee." Gordon said he's hoping that the whole situation will be stabilized by early summer.

CIE Tours International, an Ireland specialist, also is rerouting trips when necessary.

Brian Stack, president of the Cedar Knolls, N.J.-based company, said, "Our kind of tourists are the most environmentally, agriculturally friendly tourists you're going to get. They're on luxury coaches; they're not there to pet sheep or anything."

The hoof-and-mouth outbreak has the potential to affect golf vacations, as well. According to the British Tourist Authority, Golf Unions of England, Scotland and Wales has instructed each golf club to assess its own situation, but courses that are near farmland or animals are being advised to close.

David Brice, president of Golf International, in New York, said, "We have no instances at this point of any golf courses being closed in any of the major golfing regions of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. "There is some concern from some clients," Brice said.

Three major golf courses in Ireland, Brice said, Mahonys Point and Killeen, both in Kilarney, County Kerry, and Lahinch, adjacent to farmland in County Claire, are temporarily closed.

"In Scotland, all the outbreaks have been limited to the southernmost border counties of Galloway and Dumfries, which [are] not primary golfing destinations," he said.

DER Travel Services said it temporarily suspended sales of the Great British Heritage Pass, which is valid for entrance to some 500 properties.

"We don't want to sell the pass and then have people not be able to use it,"a spokeswoman said.

Information on closures of sightseeing attractions can be found on the following Web sites: www.english-heritage.org.uk; www.nationaltrust.org.uk; www.ramblers.org.uk, and www.visitbritain.com.

Questions pile up for agents

By Michele SanFilipo

NEW YORK -- Frontline agents are fielding lots of questions about hoof-and-mouth disease.

"We're getting questions about the kinds of precautions clients should take on their trips and whether they should avoid certain foods," said Betty Hollingsworth, a leisure consultant and Scots Master specialist at Uniworld Travel in Indianapolis.

She said her agency has not lost any bookings yet from clients bound for the U.K.

Al Yougel, president of Atlanta Company Travel and a BritAgent and ScotsMaster, said, "Everybody is concerned [about] the kinds of activities they can take part in and the kinds of screenings involved in going from one region to another."

One New Jersey agent, who is a former microbiologist, said she has been carefully explaining the situation to clients.

The retailer, Katharine Lancy, president and owner of Swanton British Travel Service in Phillipsburg, N.J., told Travel Weekly, "I am not discouraging clients [from traveling to] the U.K. by any means, but I have described why the countries are trying to keep humans from wandering the countryside and spreading the disease to animals that haven't been affected."

Lancy has decided to cancel her own escorted English countryside tours for June, July and August because she "doesn't want to take bus loads of people into the heart of the situation."

"If the countries decide to close all British Heritage and Trust properties, the summer season is doomed."

Kate Kilcoyne, manager of Irish Travels in Omaha, Neb., said her clients are cautionary but not ready to cancel their trips.

"I'm finding that people just want an understanding of what the situation is and what measures they need to take."

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