Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Fourth Report


The outbreak and initial preventive measures

36. On the evening of Tuesday 20 February, the first case of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom for 20 years was confirmed.[84] Foot and mouth disease is a highly contagious disease of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and wild ruminants. Animals may be infective without displaying clinical signs of the disease and therefore control of all animal movement is the first measure to control the disease. The disease may also be transmitted by contact with contaminated animal products, contaminated personnel or equipment, or on the wind, particularly in cool, damp conditions. In light of the highly contagious nature of the disease, one of the first announcements by the Government in response to the disease was that measures would be introduced to limit public access in many rural areas.[85]

37. A range of measures was taken with the aim of ensuring that tourists did not contribute to the spread of the disease. Footpaths, parks and rights of way were closed across the United Kingdom.[86] Many tourist attractions such as heritage sites were closed.[87] Many landowning organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Forestry Commission and British Waterways announced that land they managed throughout the United Kingdom would be closed as a precaution against the spread of the disease.[88] Many local education authorities advised schools not to organise activities involving visits to rural areas.[89] A number of outdoor spaces, including some of the National Parks and certain Forests, remain closed to visitors either as a precaution against the spread of the disease or because of infection.

38. A recurring allegation was that the authorities had over-reacted to the outbreak, introducing measures that were not crucial to combatting the disease, but had serious and detrimental effects on tourism. According to the Council for Travel and Tourism the "measures taken at the beginning of the foot and mouth outbreak were positively draconian".[90] In the view of the Tourism Society, the "confused and conflicting information ... had the effect of persuading the British public to steer clear of the countryside as a whole".[91] Mr Malcolm Bell, Chief Executive of South West Tourism, said that the Government had pursued a single objective of containing and eradicating the disease without "looking at the collateral damage to industries like tourism".[92]

39. In considering these criticisms, three factors ought to be borne in mind. First, it was right to see control and eradication of the disease as a high priority for action; there is a strong interest for the tourist industry in effective elimination of the disease. Second, it was understandable that lessons for tourism were not drawn from the very different outbreak in 1967, which took place in winter at a time when tourism was anyway far less developed and that outbreak was much more geographically concentrated.[93] Third, it was not apparent at the early stages of the outbreak how far the disease had spread and how enduring the outbreak would prove.

40. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that immediate measures taken to control the disease and prevent its further spread had consequences for rural tourism that were not foreseen or perhaps even considered by the authorities charged with control of the disease. There is a strong sense of grievance among rural tourist businesses that their interests have not simply been subordinated to the legitimate interest in eliminating the disease, but have been wholly ignored. That sense of grievance is inevitably stronger where livestock has already been slaughtered, in areas that would normally be open to tourists, than in areas that have escaped infection. It is not possible or appropriate for this Committee to examine the precise balance of interests involved in the light of the potential role of human movement on foot in the spread of the disease, but it will be essential once the crisis has passed to examine carefully the appropriateness of the policies adopted with regard to public access in the light of their impact on tourism.

41. In addition to the actual closure of certain areas, the measures designed to combat the disease have created difficulties that affect the quality of the tourist experience in rural areas. The slaughter and disposal of livestock, particularly disposal through incineration, have been unpleasant for visitors as well as local communities.[94] The use of disinfectant mats and disinfectant on vehicles and footwear has been a discouraging process for the visitor.[95]

42. However, in terms of the impact on tourism, the actual effects of the disease and measures to combat it in certain rural areas have been far outweighed by the sensationalist and sometimes even hysterical media reporting of the outbreak. As the Council for Travel and Tourism observed, the "highly visible burning of animal carcasses on funeral pyres and the backlog in the disposal of carcasses created an extremely vivid and disturbing image of the countryside, both for the domestic audience and for the world at large".[96] As Ms Anderson noted, the impression was created that "there was a funeral pyre of burning animals in every field in Britain".[97] Together with the practical measures taken to prevent the spread of the disease, media portrayals made the entire British countryside seem an unwelcoming destination for visitors.

The impact on tourism business

43. At the same time as the public authorities were gearing up to respond to the situation, evidence began to emerge of the full-scale of the burgeoning crisis for tourism in general and rural tourism in particular. We have received a great deal of evidence during this inquiry about the scale and nature of that impact and the human hardship that it has entailed. While this crisis is continuing, and following this necessarily short inquiry, it would be neither possible nor appropriate to give an overall assessment. The impact has been uneven, but some patterns have emerged.

44. The broad chronology of the impact has been as follows. Tourism activity in March was sharply down. For example, total bookings for accommodation in Cumbria were down by 58 per cent in March 2001 compared with March 2000, with bookings in the Lake District down by 75 per cent.[98] There was a revival over Easter in the trade, but this was predominantly due to short-stay visitors and day visitors, so that the benefits were far more apparent for visitor attractions than for accommodation providers.[99]

45. The Easter holiday proved a false dawn for many tourism businesses, with bookings tailing off sharply after the Easter weekend. The level of forward bookings is still well down in many cases, so that it is unclear whether anything approaching a normal summer season will be possible for many accommodation providers.

46. This general pattern disguises profound variations between different types of tourism. After initial problems, cities, towns and resorts have fared well, with visitor numbers increasing in some cases as visitors are displaced from the countryside.[100] Rural tourism has been far harder hit. To some extent, the level of impact has reflected the pattern of distribution of foot and mouth disease, with areas such as Cumbria and Devon worst affected. However, some of the worst hit areas are those where open spaces are completely closed to visitors—such as certain National Parks and Forests—regardless of whether or not foot and mouth disease is present in the area. The farm tourism sector has suffered a devastating blow, being both unable to open for business and suffering from the direct agricultural consequences of foot and mouth disease.

47. Statistics from various parts of England give some illustration of the scale of the impact. In mid-April, the Cumbria Tourist Board estimated that there had already been 1,000 job losses.[101] The Northumbria Tourist Board stated that visits to attractions in that region were down 71 per cent, with 45 per cent of accommodation bookings cancelled, and 18 per cent of businesses having laid-off staff.[102] South West Tourism predicted that that region would lose between £300 million and £600 million over the year.[103]

48. The effect on individual businesses is extremely uneven. Some have had to be closed for business due to location inside or proximity to infected areas. Others have lost almost all of their trade—as is the case with many outdoor activity centres—and see few signs of that business returning. Many rural tourist attractions including outdoor activity centres, museums and wildlife attractions have seen their business further reduced, or in some cases totally eliminated, because of advice to educational establishments not to visit the countryside.[104] Moreover, we were informed that different local education authorities—even some adjoining each other—were offering conflicting advice to schools. We recommend that the Department for Education and Employment recommend urgently that all local education authorities review the advice and instructions they give to schools and ensure that, whenever possible, visits go ahead.

49. There has been a tendency during discussion of the economic impact of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease on tourism to measure it simply in terms of lost income. However, as we learnt during our visit to the Forest of Dean, tourist businesses in affected areas have sometimes had to incur additional expenditure in order to stay open, for example, in order to undertake precautionary measures. Businesses that invested in promotion and marketing for the spring season have also found that such expenditure has been entirely wasted.

50. Although the foot and mouth outbreak has hit rural tourism hardest and has hit certain rural areas with exceptional severity, there has been a more general impact on tourism across the United Kingdom as a result of the reduction in the number of overseas visitors. The BTA expected that inbound tourism for 2001 would now be 10 to 20 per cent below the Authority's original forecasts, equating to a drop in revenue of between £1.5 and £2.5 billion.[105] Overseas visits are concentrated on urban areas and half of all expenditure by overseas visitors is in London.[106] Business in hotels and youth hostels in urban areas has been adversely affected by the reduction in overseas visitors, as have visitor attractions that rely particularly on overseas visitors.[107]

51. Moreover, there are many overseas visitors to rural Britain. For example, South West England attracts 2.2 million trips from overseas in a normal year.[108] Some rural areas had consciously sought to attract more visitors from overseas to compensate for the decline in the long-stay holiday market.[109] Inbound tourism is often of particular value to rural areas because overseas visitors offer higher spending levels and year-round growth potential.[110] The BTA has been committed to seeking to enhance the number of visitors from abroad who venture beyond London and obvious tourist destinations.[111] These efforts, and inbound tourism to rural areas, have been particularly acutely affected by the consequences of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.[112]

52. Although the impact on the level of visitors from abroad is less drastic in percentage terms than the impact on domestic visitors to certain parts of rural Britain, there are reasons to believe that the overseas market will recover more slowly than the domestic market taken as a whole. There are already signs that opportunities for bookings for the main summer season have been lost.[113] Based on previous incidents affecting inbound tourism, such as the Gulf War, the BTA expected negative effects on the level of overseas visitors to be felt for up to three years.[114]

53. It has not been possible for us within the constraints of the current inquiry to undertake more than a brief, preliminary survey of the direct impact on tourism businesses of the current crisis, but we wish to make three general observations. First, it is essential to be very cautious of general figures on a national or regional basis since these disguise many variations between localities and between different types of business. Second, it must be borne in mind that figures are more easily provided by and collected from larger tourism businesses that are anyway best-placed to ride out the storm, creating a danger that statistics may understate the extent of hardship amongst very small tourism businesses. Third, simple examination of levels of business in coming months may prove to be a very misleading indicator of the financial health of tourism businesses; much of the trade lost will never be regained and, in many cases, the delicate balance that enables businesses that receive most of their income in the summer to survive the winter will be upset.

84  HC Deb, 26 February 2001, col 598. Back

85  Evidence, p 116. Back

86  Evidence, p 128. Back

87  Evidence, p 130. Back

88  Evidence, p 127. Back

89  Evidence, p 93. Back

90  Evidence, p 116. Back

91  Evidence, p 97. Back

92  Q 88. Back

93  Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Foot-and-Mouth Disease 1968: Part One, April 1969, Cmnd 3999, pp 43-44, 53; Evidence, p 73. Back

94  Evidence, p 93. Back

95  Evidence, p 128. Back

96  Evidence, p 105. Back

97  Ibid; Q 153. Back

98  Evidence, p 35. Back

99  HC Deb, 30 April 2001, col 632. Back

100  HC Deb, 30 April 2001, cols 632-633. Back

101  Evidence, p 35. Back

102  Evidence, p 73. Back

103  Evidence, pp 43-44. Back

104  Evidence, p 93. Back

105  Evidence, p 1. Back

106  Evidence, p 109. Back

107  Evidence, pp 83-84, 94-95, 109. Back

108  Evidence, p 42. Back

109  Evidence, pp 39-40. Back

110  Evidence, pp 15, 40. Back

111  Q 26. Back

112  QQ 7, 77. Back

113  Q 30. Back

114  QQ 37, 38. Back

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