With government compensation offsetting the impact of the
foot-and-mouth crisis on Britain's farmers, attention has turned from
this already ailing trade to the effects on the more economically
significant tourist industry.
Already affected by the financial downturn in Asia and the US - both key
markets for attracting visitors to these shores - the industry now faces
the loss of up to pounds 2.5bn this year from overseas tourists alone,
jeopardising the future of countless small operators.
The economic problems have, however, proved a goldmine for PR agencies
solicited to assist the various bodies involved. GCI Group has been
taken on by the British Tourist Authority, while Ogilvy handles the
English Tourism Council account. Some of the worst affected regions have
taken on their own external help, with Marbles working alongside South
West Tourism, YFC handling the south of England, Bell Pottinger acting
for the York Tourism Bureau and Burson-Marsteller working in hard-hit
Katherine Grice, press and PR manager at the London Tourist Board (LTB),
which has appointed LDA Communications to support its efforts, is ready
to all but write off overseas tourists until the disease subsides. She
claims there is no point undertaking a marketing campaign 'until
foot-and-mouth is under control'.
As a result, the LTB's principal campaign targets domestic tourists:
encouraging short breaks in the capital to make up the shortfall in
hotel bookings. However, the LTB's own figures estimate that although
around half of the visitors to London come from within the UK, they
spend only pounds 1bn per year as opposed to the pounds 7bn disbursed by
GCI director Rhodri Harries, whose brief is to salvage the UK's battered
image overseas, disagrees with the LTB's line. He insists it is not
GCI's strategy to write off anything. 'It would be irresponsible to do
so from a British perspective as so many jobs depend on tourism. At the
moment, our work is about neutralising inaccurate misrepresentations in
the foreign media. Our aim is to educate and rebut what is essentially
sensationalist and irresponsible media coverage overseas,' he says.
Yet with health concerns rife over dioxin emissions from the burning of
carcasses, and even talk of napalm as a solution to the carcass disposal
backlog, achieving positive coverage overseas is problematic -
particularly when news bulletins begin to resemble wartime dispatches.
'It's part of our job to be open and responsible with the information we
have,' admits Harries. 'It's not about fooling people, but putting the
problem into perspective.'
A major marketing campaign is to form part of the long-term strategy to
revive the industry. BTA chairman David Quarmby has said that after the
Gulf War it took four years to rebuild American confidence in travelling
to Western Europe, despite its distance from the conflict. He added:
'Our fear is that without adequate (marketing) activity it could take at
least as long to rebuild confidence after foot-and-mouth.'
It is the battle for media coverage in the US that underpins a great
deal of the PR work. North American tourists account for a fifth of all
foreign visitors to the UK, and figures for March - at the onset of the
outbreak - suggest a 30 per cent slump in trans-Atlantic trade.
Apocalyptic images of burning cattle make for a compelling news story.
But efforts to sway coverage are hampered by the US media's reluctance
to accept British reassurances. CNN, for example, has reacted to the
Open Britain campaign with reference to 'fumblings by British officials
and scientists in the past', harking back to former agriculture minister
John Gummer's steadfast denial that BSE in meat could infect humans.
The US government's tough stance has not helped lift the air of
disaster. Washington's agriculture ministry is advising tourists not to
visits farms, zoos, or any 'animal facilities' for five days prior to
returning home, whereupon they are subject to a stringent disinfection
A non-partisan government department advises that travellers' clothes
should be laundered immediately upon their return to the US, they should
shower and 'shampoo thoroughly', and contact with any livestock should
be strictly avoided for a further five days. Similar restrictions apply
elsewhere, as the rest of the world seeks to quarantine the ailment.
For those attempting to promote the 'business as usual' line, this
burden on travellers serves only to hamper their efforts. It is why a
great deal of planning is going into the long-term strategy to woo
visitors back to the UK once restrictions end.
One of the main themes of GCI and the BTA's strategy is to get coverage
of positive events over the coming year. 'We have to look for issues
that have resonance with the US media,' says Harries. CBS has so far
devoted airtime to the re-opening of Stonehenge, while the forthcoming
campaign will attempt to resell Britain through events such as the
Queen's jubilee next year and Manchester's hosting of the Commonwealth
That the country will eventually return to normality is beyond
It remains to be seen whether the vacant hotel rooms can be restocked as
rapidly as the farmyards.