Outbreak Choking Tourism In Britain's Lake District

Spring is coming, and city dwellers should soon be swarming over the hills of the Lake District, communing with the spirits of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.

But nothing is as it should be lately in northwestern England since foot-and-mouth disease arrived. At the Queens Hotel in the center of Keswick, and scores of others nearby, the phones are silent, the lobby still.

Snow still clings to the hilltops, the daffodils have yet to bloom, and the few visitors now can really savor Wordsworth's experience of wandering "lonely as a cloud."

But they'll run into footpaths that have been closed to prevent hikers from spreading the disease with their boots, and risk fines of $7,500 for violating the ban.

Some 14 million people visit the Lake District each year, and the disease that has been hopscotching around the British countryside for the past month has hit tourism nearly as hard as the farmers whose livestock are being slaughtered to stop the outbreak.

"It's been devastating," said Caroline Gibson, a manager at the Lakeland Pedlar cafe. "Most people are saying their profits have gone down either to naught or 50 percent of what they were last year."

The Lake District, one of the loveliest corners of England and its premier outdoor vacation spot, has the most to lose: an estimated $1.4 billion in tourist money per year.

As part of Cumbria, the disease's epicenter, it's frighteningly vulnerable.

"The bulk of the economy in this county is tourism, and nobody's coming here," said Trevor Keough, co-owner of an outdoor activity center in Seatoller, just outside Keswick.

Just a handful of foot-and-mouth cases have been identified in the Lake District itself, but the disease has devastated sections of England and Scotland just to the north.

Humans don't catch it and it is normally not fatal to livestock, but televised images of animal carcasses stacked up for burning have scared many people off rural trips. And the closure of all country footpaths robbed the district of its most popular attraction.

Keswick is filled with charming stone buildings and cozy tea houses, but for hikers, its appeal is limited.

"You can only look around so many shops," said Gibson. "You need to be able to get out and about."

The sudden drop-off has shocked the Lake District, which the Romantic poets made famous with rhapsodic verses about its green hills and rocky fells.

Business owners say Easter, normally a big weekend, is already lost.

Just two parties booked hotel rooms in Keswick through the Lake District National Park office last weekend, compared with 43 the same weekend last year, said the office's Karen Carter.

The fear is that the whole season is lost.

Potential visitors "have lost their confidence," said Gina Clive, who leads walks through the area. "We want them to come back. We're desperate for them."

"I have 30-odd staff to pay," said Peter Williams, the Queens Hotel's proprietor. "I can't afford to pay them if there's no money coming in."

Many believe the government in London, 285 miles away, isn't doing enough to help them.

"Surely it would be better to give to us financially now, while most of us are still in business," said Deborah Cowin, owner of the Necessary Angel, a jewelry and art shop.

The government has introduced some temporary tax breaks, and on Thursday it placed full-page newspaper ads urging Britons to return to countryside attractions — while still observing some restrictions.

Britain's tourism minister flew to New York this week hoping to keep Americans coming to Britain.

Locals say there's lots to do here even while the footpaths are closed. Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's former home, is opening early, and tourist offices have lists of country lanes open to walkers.

Promised Cowin, "Anyone who does come will be given such a warm welcome!"