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[Photo: Wales Tourist Board]
Concerns over the spread of foot and mouth disease closed Brecon Beacons, Wales, for eight months last year — no hikers, cyclists, horse riders or even soldiers on maneuvers.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


Some of the Welsh and English countryside was closed to tourists - for just two months - in 2001, after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. But tourism still hasn't recovered.

Editor's note: Imagine what it would be like if the federal government suddenly banned access to the gulf beaches and to Busch Gardens, for fear that visitors would spread a disease that might be found in those places. That's about what happened in much of Great Britain in early 2001. A year later, tourism interests are still struggling. All figures have been converted to dollars.

* * *

BUCKFASTLEIGH, Devon, England -- Chris Murray finished his chore as self-appointed coach-cheerleader for the raw-egg toss competition and sat down a few feet from the continuous hubbub that is his Pennywell Farm and Wildlife Center. Dozens of youngsters raced about, looking for lambs to pet or baby chicks to cuddle. Parents cradled ceramic items painted by their children.

Gazing at the stout green hills beyond his 60 acres of southwest England, Murray thought back less than 12 months, to the time he was ready to sell all of this.

Back then, foot-and-mouth disease, a highly infectious livestock illness that is relatively harmless to humans, had been detected at several British farms as winter was ending. The national government feared that humans passing through rural areas might spread the disease, driving down livestock prices immediately and cutting Great Britain's agricultural revenues for years to come.

It had been just a few years since the apparent eradication of so-called mad cow disease, which had killed humans and thus ruined British beef sales. So national officials decided to take drastic measures against foot-and-mouth.

They ordered the closure of parks and cessation of the right-of-way laws that allowed Britons to engage in their beloved pastime of walking about the countryside.

That quarantine lasted just two months in much of England and Wales. But the damage to rural tourism -- the afternoon treks, walking vacations, weekend camping, visits to farm attractions and petting zoos -- still is felt.

"Foot-and-mouth hit at the end of February," Murray recounted for a visitor. "I had no trade until the end of April. I lost about $225,000 turnover (revenue) in that time. . . .

"For three days at the end of March, I thought about closing" the 12-year-old business, which typically draws more than 10,000 schoolchildren on field trips and another 60,000-plus customers.

Added the London native, "I bought tickets for New Zealand, to see if we should move there."

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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Chris Murray, facing the camera, is coach, referee and cheerleader for this egg-toss game at his farm center in Devon. He considered selling his business last year.

A relative loaned Murray enough money to keep Pennywell open, but there were few guests to coo over the 250 sheep and their 400 lambs or the 12 cows and their calves, to wander after the waddling geese and chickens, to ride the stocky Dartmoor ponies.

"We didn't recover (usual attendance) until August," Murray said.

Like uncounted other tourism operators throughout England and Wales, Murray knows that the revenue lost in 2001 to the quarantine can never be recovered.

City folks who would drive southwest for three hours from London or would take a break from their seaside holidays in nearby Cornwall did not return in their usual numbers. "People are nervous about going to the countryside, nervous that they would catch something."

The ripple effect of the lost revenue is enormous. The national government puts the loss for tourism last year at more than $3-billion. But that doesn't account for the people who were not hired for the countryside season, which generally runs from Easter through October.

For instance, during the height of the season Murray employs as many as 60 people, including part timers. For the early season last year, he hired none.

Some of those economic ripples are more like waves. Ian Newman figures that the cancellation last year of eight Elderhostel walking trips through his Footpath Holidays -- 30 walkers and two guides on each multinight trip -- meant "I didn't spend $80,000 with one hotel in Cornwall" where the walkers would have stayed.

Newman's five- and seven-night trips are becoming more popular with Americans, so "I always add in the brochures, in parentheses, that 'walking' here means hiking -- getting a bit of rough ground under your feet."

But with the "rough ground" such as Devon's appealing Dartmoor National Park closed early in the year, "We were powerless, and it was frustrating," he said. "We were offering to shift people's destinations but we had to refund so much money. I worked three times as hard as usual, and I got nowhere from it."

Newman estimates he and his wife, the co-owner, took in barely half the expected revenue last year of $1.2-million, and thus they lost an expected $54,000 in profit.

While Newman says the quarantine experience was "a kick in the pants -- we'll never again take anything for granted" -- there is another lesson he is trying to remember this season:

"My children (9-year-old twins) are hoping 'Happy Dad' will put in an appearance. Last year they only got 'Grumpy Dad.' "

* * *

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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Amid the hills of England’s Dartmoor National Park sits the 18th century coaching inn that is now the Two Bridges Hotel.
All across the challenging hills of Dartmoor National Park, stocky ponies and wide sheep nibble at the low ground cover and gorse, often crossing the narrow, two-lane roads.

Roadside pullouts are used by picnickers or walkers, who lift quilted vests and rugged boots from the back seat. Hikers bent slightly by aluminium-frame backpacks stroll the roadside, framed maps of the rugged land dangling off cords from their packs.

Dartmoor is where Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes face down The Hound of the Baskervilles. But on an early spring Saturday, cars and minivans zip along and motorcyclists roar by, leaning into the curves.

More than a few big-city sports have driven out in their two-seater convertibles, put down the top and are cheerfully disobeying the 40 mph posted limit, to better pit man and machine against the twisting landscape.

Mother sheep bleat to their wandering lambs. "BAAA!" comes the often-deep call from the ewe; "baaa" comes the tiny but urgent response, as the animals move toward each other.

In and near villages, daffodils border driveways and the roadsides leading to farms and B&Bs. The yellow blooms line the way to the old coaching inn named the Two Bridges Hotel, deep within Dartmoor.

"This is an 18th century hotel," sales manager Jane Waters explained after showing some of its 29 rooms to a husband and wife. "And (because of the quarantine) it was closed for three months last year -- for the first time in its history."
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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Jane Waters, sales manager for the Two Bridges Hotel, said the hotel closed for the first time in its history last year when traffic was banned through Dartmoor National Park.

Outside, the lawn and the picnic tables are now crowded; indoors, guests wander past the lobby's comfortable furniture. "That was thousands and thousands of pounds we'll never recoup," Waters continued.

"After the footpaths and parks were reopened, Prince Charles flew in on a helicopter to meet here with about 70 of his tenant farmers -- this is duchy land, owned by the prince. They mostly raise sheep and Aberdeen Angus cattle. The prince was very concerned and stayed busy talking to the farmers."

Waters paused for a moment, remembering. "During those three months (of hotel closure), it really seemed barren here. There were no cars on the roads, no hikers and walkers, no livestock; it even seemed there were no birds. It was eerie."

* * *

Near the village of Newton Abbot, on 70 acres outside the southern edge of Dartmoor, is the Holne Chase Hotel. The 19th century, three-story former hunting lodge rests impressively atop a vast lawn that seemingly slopes away forever until being enveloped by an ancient oak forest.
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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Formerly a hunting lodge, the Holne Chase Hotel went without guests for three months last year after the closure of nearby Dartmoor National Park because of foot-and-mouth disease.

It is not quite the extravagance of the manse seen in Gosford Park, but as owner Sebastian Hughes says: "There are lots of country-house hotels that are roughly the same: well-situated, but without a better view or better food than the others have. It is the atmosphere (at any one) that makes the guests come back."

Except that he had no guests in his 17 rooms from last March to July. No one for his 21 full-time employees to pamper, no one to gaze at the old hunting prints on the wall while sipping single malt. No one for the taxis to bring out from the train station in Newton Abbot, no one needing newspapers brought from town.

The quarantine, Hughes estimates, cost him 30 percent of his revenue -- a half-million dollars. Hughes, who owns two other hotels and working farms, is not philosophical about that.

"The government made a complete bollix (bungle) of it. The Ministry of Agriculture was not designed to deal with an outbreak. . . ."

By not immediately closing domestic livestock markets, it allowed farmers to bring infected sheep to at least a dozen markets, "where they were penned up, kissing each other. The price for sheep collapsed. So the animals were brought back to their own farms, spreading the disease" contracted at the markets.

The only bright spot Hughes could remember from the quarantine: He owns a hotel in the Devon university town of Exeter, where his and other hotels "did well, housing the veterinarians being flown in from all over the world" to stem the spread of the disease.

* * *

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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Colin Evans takes a call at his riding stables. Because of the quarantine, loss of business at the 38-year-old center forced him to sell three horses to pay the bills.

Anger at the government's actions is more pronounced in southern Wales. There, the Brecon Beacons National Park, 542 square miles of ruggedly beautiful hills, was closed from March 11 to Nov. 10 -- the entire outdoor season.

"A survey showed that we lost about $74-million in expected tourism revenue just within the park," according to Jane Lewis, marketing manager for the tourism organization the Beacons Trust.

"And in Powys County, which is 120 miles long," added Lewis, "we lost another $100-million."

How could a rural area lose so much income? Because "(Prime Minister) Tony Blair stood up and said, 'Britain is closed,' " local hotelier Michael Taylor recalled last month. "But we were trying to say, 'It's only, keep off the grass.' "
photo
[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
“We were trying to say, ‘It’s only, keep off the grass,’ “ Welsh hotelier Michael Taylor said about the quarantine.

That message, unheeded, was that visitors could drive through the countryside, could stop in the villages for a pint of ale in the pubs and lunch in the restaurants, visit the shops, spend the night at places like Taylor's 10-room Usk Inn, in the crossroads community of Talybont-on-Usk.

"We were not allowed to ride (our horses) in the Brecons, and we lost 90-95 percent of our business," recalled Colin Evans. He operates the Cantref Riding Center his parents created in the early 1960s.

The loss of an estimated $100,000 last year forced Evans to sell three of his 40 horses, to help pay the bills. He joined other tourism operators in a protest at the Welsh Assembly, in Cardiff. "We took some of the horses down there," to show legislators what business he was in.

Similarly, "For the first time I found myself going on a protest, down to London," said Nicola Atkins, who operates a boat-rental company from her canalside home near Pencelli.

"A coachload (a 53-passenger bus) went to the Houses of Parliament and to 10 Downing Street (the prime minister's residence) to show how much (the quarantine) cost tourism, and to protest the burning carcasses" of livestock.

With her husband, Bob, Atkins rents nine custom-built "narrow boats" for vacationers to use on 34 miles of canals originally built for industrial purposes. But their Cambrian Cruisers had no takers for most of the season, and Atkins estimates the loss at nearly $60,000.

That meant the couple did not hire the usual one seasonal worker. For John Thomas, the quarantine meant he did not hire 80.

Thomas heads an immense adventure company that operates year-round on 1,000 acres on the edge of the national park. His Llangorse Climbing and Riding Center boasts 140 riding horses and 26 miles of bridle trails, a three-story, indoor rock-climbing and rope-climbing center, and an outdoor obstacle course that includes overhead cables up to 40 feet above the ground.

The British Army sends in teams most mornings to train, indoors and out. But they are just a small fraction of the 84,000 customers, young and old, Thomas counted in 2000. With the quarantine, however, his business dropped 30 percent last year -- costing him about $740,000 in revenue.

"Our biggest problem was the government kept saying the countryside was closed, but the nearest case (of the disease) was 21/2 miles away.

"Even now," he said a month ago, "we get people ringing up and asking if we're open. We always were."

Lewis, the marketing director, tells of a local optometrist who could not understand why his usual patient schedule was down. Then he met one of his patients and asked why the man had not been in for his check-up. The answer the man gave the dentist, according to Lewis, was that without the tourism revenue this man relied on, he could not afford the optometrist, so he had bought a pair of reading glasses off the shelf of a local supermarket.

Nor was all the revenue lost to private concerns. The British Army was down nearly $6-million, Lewis said, when it could not rent isolated space in the vast Brecon Beacons to Dutch and German forces for their maneuvers.

* * *
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[Photo: Wales Tourist Board]
Horseback riding is one of the pastimes that drew about 3.2-million users into the Brecon Beacons the year before the foot-and-mouth quarantine.

There have been no foot-and-mouth cases reported in Great Britain for seven months.

Yet most people interviewed for this story do not expect a return to normal business before 2003. Among their concerns is the post-Sept. 11 decline in visitors from the United States. As hotelier Taylor put it:

"The American market is important to the world: There are more of you, and you have disposable income."

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If you go

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the tourism operators mentioned in this article. The country code to call the United Kingdom is 44; when writing, add United Kingdom at the end of each of the following addresses:

Pennywell, Devon's Farm and Wildlife Center, Buckfastleigh, Devon, TQ11 0LT. Call 1364 642023; e-mail information@pennywellfarmcentre.co.uk

Footpath Holidays, 16 Norton Bavant, Near Warminster, Wiltshire, BA12 7BB. Call 1982 840049.

Holne Chase Hotel, Near Ashburton, Devon TQ13 7NS, England. Call 1364 631471; fax 1364 631453; e-mail info@holne-chase.co.uk. The Web site is www.holne-chase.co.uk/index.html

Two Bridges Hotel, Princetown, Devon. Call 1822 890581.

Beacons Trust, Jane Lewis, marketing director; 7 Rosferig Road, Brecon, Powys LD3 7NG. Call 1874 623 185; fax 1874 623 775. E-mail jane@totaltourism.co.uk; www.brecon-beacons.net

Brecon Beacons National Park; call 1874 624437; www.breconbeacons.org

Cantref Riding Center, Upper Cantref Farm, Cantref, Brecon, Powys LD3 8LR; call/fax 1874 665223. E-mail info@cantref.com; www.cantref.com

Cambrian Cruisers, Ty Newydd, Pencelli, Brecon LD3 7IJ. Call or fax 1874 665315; e-mail cambrian@talk21.com; www.cambriancruisers.co.uk

Llangorse Climbing and Riding Center, Gilfach Farm, Llangorse, Brecon, Powys LD3 7UH; call 01874 658272; fax 01874 658280; www.activityuk.com

Usk Inn, Talybont on Usk, Brecon LD3 7JE; call 1874 676251, fax 1874 676393; e-mail stay@uskinn.co.uk; www.uskinn.co.uk

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