- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Americans are canceling trips to England because of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease spreading to farm animals throughout Europe.

But travel agents say tourists instead should change their specific plans to avoid closed historic sites, farms and off-limit roads.

"I don't think tourists should cancel," said Nancy Zebrick, vice president of industry relations at Onetravel.com. "Visitors will have to change their itinerary to be more urban."

Major British tourist sites like Stonehenge, the historic rock monument in southwestern England, and the 73-mile-long Hadrian's Wall are closed, along with other national parks, gardens, castles and museums.

Karen Steinlage, owner of Athena Travel in Laurel, has had several clients cancel their trips to England because some of the historic-site closures.

"They're not canceling because of their own health [concerns]," she said. "They're canceling because the sites are closed."

Almost 700 cases of the highly contagious disease, which is also known as hoof-and-mouth disease, have been reported in England. Scientists are predicting that the number of cases could skyrocket to 4,000 by June.

The disease has spread to Ireland, France, Argentina and the Netherlands. Ireland's St. Patrick's Day festivities were canceled earlier this month, and Disneyland Paris has stopped horse-and-carriage rides and put about 80 animals in quarantine as a precaution against the disease.

Other precautions include the slaughtering and burning of contaminated livestock to stop the epidemic from spreading. The British army this week began burying hundreds of sheep into a trench as long as three football fields in another effort to control the disease.

British authorities say the tourism industry is losing about $140 million per week. That's expected to increase to a $350 million loss per week during the height of the tourism season in July and August.

"It's going to be a rough summer for them," Ms. Zebrick said. "Domestic tourism will definitely increase."

British tourism officials and agents are trying to ease tourist concerns about the disease and its effect on travel plans.

"Britain is open for business," said Elizabeth Cannon, public relations executive for the British Tourist Authority, USA. "There is no reason to cancel or postpone trips."

British authorities are beginning to reopen some sites. For instance, the National Trust will open nearly 300 of its properties over the next couple of weeks.

"The countryside is completely accessible," Ms. Cannon said. But people have to "take heed of warnings and follow guidelines."

But the closings are making it hard for U.S. travel agents to plan trips for their customers.

"It's difficult," said Rita Shah, owner of Chronos Travel Services in Great Falls. "It's not easy to put together a package for a client."

Jackie Pitts, a travel consultant at Portfolio Travel in Northwest, said a family of six heading to Ireland in June may reconsider taking the trip because of the limitations there.

"In Ireland, you spend a lot of time outside fishing, bicycling or hiking," she said. "If the skies fill with a black smoke of burning carcass, it's not going to be a pleasant trip."

Travel officials say many people are confusing foot-and-mouth disease, which is not harmful to humans, with mad cow disease another ailment found in animals in Europe. Mad cow disease, in its human form, is a fatal, brain-destroying illness.

"As much as the U.K. is doing to safeguard [against the disease], I would still avoid [eating beef]," Ms. Zebrick said. "I would go to England and live on fish and chips."

The demand for steaks and other beef will soon be greater than the available supply thanks to both diseases, causing beef prices to skyrocket.

"The cost per pound is going to be exorbitant," Ms. Zebrick said. "If you're a vegetarian, this is the time to go there."


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