Tourism (Foot and Mouth)

Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Media and Sport – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 26 March 2001.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow 2:30, 26 March 2001

What assessment he has made of the effect on the tourist industry of the foot and mouth outbreak.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The loss of tourism business in England is in the order of £100 million a week and could reach £250 million a week if the consequential implications of the foot and mouth outbreak continue well into the main summer season.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Farmers apart, what is being done to help the total rural economic community? Many small hotel keepers are simply reeling.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the severe impact of the foot and mouth outbreak on the entire rural economy. Tourism has been particularly badly affected, but many other rural businesses have been affected too. When I visited Cumbria last weekend to see for myself the impact on local tourism and businesses, I was told a grim story. Hoteliers, guest house keepers and people dependent on the tourism industry were extremely anxious that two things should happen.

First, they wanted the Government to recognise the difficulties that they faced with cash flow; the initial package of measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment last week will go some way to providing initial relief. In addition, they were extremely anxious that we should emphasise that visitors to the countryside are very welcome and that there are many things that those visitors can do with great enjoyment and benefit all around the country, without any threat or danger of the spread of the disease.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

Does the Secretary of State endorse the British Tourist Authority's recovery programme for tourism, and are the Government prepared to make money available now to enable the BTA to combat the sharp decline in visitor numbers and inquiries, not just to the areas most severely affected by the disease, but even to our resorts around the coasts? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the increased money made available for our tourist operations abroad will not rule out money being made available to tourist boards in the affected areas such as Cumbria and Devon, where work is needed now?

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

There are two crucial tasks. The first is to ensure that overseas visitors do not get an erroneous message about Britain being closed for tourism business. Over the past few weeks the British Tourist Authority has been working actively to combat that impression. We strongly support those efforts and we are in discussion with the BTA about a package of proposals, with new resources, to provide the right sort of information and advertising abroad.

The second task is to ensure that, particularly with the Easter break coming up, domestic visitors are encouraged to enjoy holidays in Britain, especially in the British countryside. It is crucial to ensure that accurate information is available about what is and what is not available to them to do. The regional tourist boards and local tourist information centres are working closely and carefully on that. The helplines are available and the information is getting out as rapidly as possible.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Labour, Copeland

Although I know that my right hon. Friend recognises that in Cumbria the tourism industry contributes almost £1 billion per annum to the county's economy, does he recognise that in the remoter parts of west and south Cumbria, and particularly in my constituency, Copeland, the tourism industry is made up of very many small businesses, which depend overwhelmingly on walkers and climbers for their income? Given that the necessary restrictions are being extended, regrettably and sadly, into my constituency because of an outbreak there, may I urge my right hon. Friend and the Government to look closely at how those very small businesses in the remote valleys and dales can be sustained for the future? They are the most vulnerable of all, because they are such tiny businesses. In particular, will my right hon. Friend consider how the Government might offer some direct assistance to those people? I applaud what is being done through the tourist authorities and the Cumbria tourist board, but those businesses will not survive unless they get direct assistance in this dire emergency.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I understand the issue that my right hon. Friend raises. For small businesses that are heavily dependent on walkers and climbers for their income, the position is nowhere near as revocable as it is for more broadly based businesses that can attract car-borne visitors. Those small businesses will immediately qualify for the package of measures announced last week by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and we will consider further what more might be done to assist them.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Conservative, East Surrey

I endorse entirely the remarks of Dr. Cunningham. The House will be dismayed at the news that an outbreak has been discovered in the heart of the Lake district. The impact on farming communities and on tourism is becoming catastrophic. Although the effect is more acute in rural areas, there is clear evidence that towns and cities across the United Kingdom are suffering from cancelled bookings, and the cost is running into billions of pounds.

Does the Secretary of State agree that extra funds for marketing will help, but that realistically, they will be of limited value while the pyres continue to burn and the footpaths are closed? Will he ensure that when help does come, it is targeted at the areas where the problem has been most acute? Does he understand the growing anger and frustration in the tourism industry at the lack of immediate and effective action to tackle the cash flow problems faced by many businesses today?

When will the Secretary of State--or the Minister for the Environment or whoever now claims to be in charge of the crisis--offer, not promise, rate relief and emergency loans for companies whose businesses have collapsed? Will he now consider scrapping his unpopular and unwise decision to abolish an England-wide marketing remit in tourism, which has hampered the efforts of the English Tourism Council during the crisis and fuelled uncertainty and confusion over the Government's handling of the whole affair?

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Coming from the party which, when in office, cut the old English tourist board by 70 per cent., the hon. Gentleman's last remark is perhaps a bit unwise. We must obviously try to approach this issue in as bipartisan a manner as possible, because there is a real and serious difficulty facing the tourism industry across the country, including the cities, owing to the fall in overseas visitor bookings. It is particularly acute in the countryside and especially in Cumbria, Devon and mid- Wales, which have been especially affected by the foot and mouth outbreak.

We have already put on the table a package of measures, as announced last week, which include enhanced rate relief for businesses in the affected rural areas. We shall of course be looking at what more needs to be done as the picture become clearer, but the most useful thing that we can all do to try to help those businesses in the rural economy is to encourage people to continue taking their holidays in the countryside.

I fear that, in the first few days of the outbreak, many people cancelled bookings in the countryside, perhaps in the mistaken belief that they were somehow helping. I would argue that they can help the rural economy and rural businesses best by continuing their visits, by going to see the countryside, and by engaging in activities that pose no threat to livestock or of progress of the disease.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

Will my right hon. Friend join me in appealing to members of the national media, particularly the broadcast media, to stop the practice of frightening tourists away from the Lake district by what they say? If they carry on, they will create hundreds of bankruptcies in west Cumbria and in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Dr. Cunningham and in mine. We cannot go on like this. They are making things worse. Furthermore, they are exaggerating the impact on the Lake district, in which until last weekend there were almost no cases of foot and mouth.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the impact of some of those impressions on tourism and holiday making, particularly in the Lake district. It is of course very sad news that one new case was identified yesterday in the Duddon valley on the edge of the Lake district national park. We must hope sincerely that the outbreak will not spread further into the park, which is still very much open for business. There are 100 visitor attractions in the Lake district that people can go to see. I very much hope that they will still want to do so.