The Message

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eaders of the news in Travel Weekly and on TWcrossroads know that we have been covering Great Britain's hoof-and-mouth crisis in considerable detail since the outbreak was reported in mid-February.

We've attempted to keep the industry informed about what hoof-and-mouth is, what it could mean economically to the U.K. and to travel suppliers here, and how it could affect this year's tourism season.

Britain is the No. 1 international leisure destination for Americans. We Yanks contribute mightily to Britain's $96 billion-a-year tourism industry, and countless FIT and escorted tour operators in the U.S. stand to be affected by travel restrictions resulting from the outbreak.

It's possible that the hoof-and-mouth story intrigues me more than the average person, but that's because I've been covering Britain for Travel Weekly for the better part of eight years, making more than 20 visits to the destination.

The British Tourist Authority sent high-ranking officials from London to New York last week in an effort to shore up the 2001 season. They said Tony Blair had given them $4 million for a targeted campaign aimed at getting out the message that Britain is open for tourists, including the countryside, so come on over.

But I'm not sure that's the right message.

I opened up my New York Times on Saturday morning to find yet another story on hoof-and-mouth on the front page. This one reported that the epidemic is officially out of control and probably won't peak until June -- maybe -- according to Britain's agriculture officials.

It carried a photo of a man holding a gun to the head of a sweet-looking cow. Bad enough for the cow, to be sure, but it was the sad face of the man that got me. That picture and others like it are continuing to be printed in newspapers all over the world almost every day.

We all like to tell each other that travel is about people. Tour brochures promise we'll "meet the locals." Suppliers go to great lengths to crowd their groups into rural pubs and set up visits to manor homes where the lord or lady of the house will join the group for tea. It's not just monuments and the museums anymore -- everybody wants to feel a local connection. Everybody wants to experience "the culture."

And that's why the BTA message needs work. "The culture" is in pain, at least it is in the countryside. Going to Britain while this epidemic is raging might be a lot like showing up for a long-planned party at the home of friends even though you know they have just had to put down the family dog.

Livestock herds aren't pets, of course, but it's a feeling of profound loss just the same, and it spills over into the wider community.

What the BTA ought to do is quickly pull together an urban tourism campaign with a message that specifically encourages city vacations. The launch of new city packages, in partnership with the BTA, might be something U.S. wholesalers should consider. Being proactive now, with a message that acknowledges the seriousness of the outbreak and promotes responsible tourism, could salvage what might otherwise turn out to be an extremely disappointing season for a whole lot of people.

Rural tourism is going to suffer this year with or without an urban promotional campaign, there's no doubt of it.

And there's very little to be said for going to a party where, try as he might to keep his chin up, the host discreetly dabs at his eyes and wonders what became of his dog.

Donna Tunney is executive editor of Travel Weekly, Travel Weekly Crossroads and Travel Management Daily.

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