Update: Britain's Foot-and-Mouth Disease, Mr. Bean in Kenya
Great Britain: In Search of Greener Pastures
In April, faced with the escalating foot-and-mouth disease crisis, the United Kingdom did what it always does in times of national emergency: call in James Bond. In the wake of mass tourist cancellations, Sir Sean Connery joined Scotland's first minister on a weeklong visit to the United States, hoping to encourage vacationers to visit his homeland.
The British hospitality industry is exasperated by Americans' fear of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which followed close on the heels of the mad-cow disease debacle. "There are terrible misperceptions about foot-and-mouth," says Clare Bradshaw, spokesperson for the Wayfarers, a company that organizes walking vacations in Great Britain. "People think Londoners are walking down the Strand with their eyes rolling back in their heads." With North Americans normally accounting for 20 percent of overseas visitors and spending about $4 billion a year, a lot is at stake.
Although foot-and-mouth poses no threat to humans and, by late spring, had been detected on fewer than 2 percent of farms, gruesome images of farmyard funeral pyres dented the country's allure (the culling is done to contain the highly contagious disease, which can devastate livestock). But while footpath closures have caused chaos for walking tours, and a few rural hotels closed their doors temporarily, most of the country is unaffected. Life in London and the other cities is normal, and all of Great Britain's top tourist attractions, including Stonehenge and York Minster, are open as usual, albeit with shorter lines.
In the Lake District, one of the areas worst hit by the outbreak, visitor numbers have plummeted. Philip Parker, who runs Number Thirty One, a Victorian town house in Carlisle that is rated as one of Britain's best small hotels, says, "If you like walking, the path closings will affect you. But if you want to drive through the Lake District, it's wonderful — there's hardly any traffic."
Even at attractions far removed from the countryside, including the Tower of London, attendance is down, and the industry is scrambling to make up for the summer's slow start. The National Trust, one of Britain's largest landowners, plans to keep many country houses open well into autumn. "American visitors are so important to Britain," says Jennifer Beeby, deputy executive director of the Trust's American affiliate. "The big-name properties are open and waiting for them."
The epidemic has also brought bargains galore. "In terms of price, this summer couldn't be a better time to visit the U.K.," says Nigel Massey, a London hotel consultant. "I tell Americans visiting London to definitely ask their hotel for a special rate." Massey thinks discounts will go as high as 20 percent, and suggests that boutique hotels will be more amenable to requests than larger chains. Reduced demand is also likely to keep airfares low through summer.
"We'll have to use every lever at our disposal to attract tourists," says Alasdair Morrison, a Scottish MP. "I think there will be some exceptional deals."
Kenya: Mr. Bean Saves the Day
In a bizarre example of life imitating farce, Rowan Atkinson, the British comedian best known for playing the infamously clumsy character Mr. Bean, seized the controls of an aircraft high above Kenya after the pilot collapsed. The chartered Cessna was carrying Atkinson and three members of his family from Mombasa to Nairobi after a safari vacation in March. The star — whose most recent film was titled Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie — wrestled with the joystick until his wife successfully revived the pilot (Kenyan aviation authorities suspect he fainted due to dehydration). When telling friends about the drama, Atkinson reportedly lapses into his bumbling Bean persona. He has not, however, said publicly whether he saw the funny side of it at the time.