14 April 2000

Profit from tourism is no pushover – warning

It takes more than

government encouragement

to start a successful rural

business. Joanne OConnor

looks at the issues

AUSTEN and Emma Righton gave up farming their 320ha (800-acre) arable farm in Oxon in 1998 because it didnt make economic sense to carry on.

They sold half their land to the RSPB and, with a subsidy from the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme, turned the other half over to grassland. They took out a loan of more than £400,000 and set about converting some redundant farm buildings into four self-catering holiday cottages.

They have just completed their first full year in the tourism business and, with hindsight, they feel they made the right decision. "Theoretically weve got the best of both worlds. We get to keep our asset but the return on capital for holiday cottages is far better than we had when the farm was running at full capacity," says Mr Righton.

This is a classic example of the rural diversification which MAFF is so keen to encourage. Funding of £150m has been made available as part of the governments Rural Enterprise Scheme and tourism projects are high up the agenda.

According to research carried out by the English Tourism Council, rural tourism is the fastest growing sector of the UKs tourism market. Over 12m holiday trips to the countryside are made each year, generating £11.5bn in tourist spending and supporting over 350,000 jobs. More farm-based attractions have opened in the UK in the last 10 years than any other type of attraction.

However, the English Tourism Council has warned that supply could start to outstrip demand if growth is not managed wisely and that government handouts could encourage farmers to swap one high-risk, low-income industry for another.

Elaine Noble, ETC acting chief executive and a farmers daughter, says: "Farming is a tough business but so is tourism. Some farmers may see it as an easy way to make money and as a result some will fail."

The English Tourism Council and the Countryside Agency have published a consultation paper to raise awareness of the issues and provide feedback to the government before the unveiling of its Rural White Paper later this year.

Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency, says: "There is a lot of pressure on tourism to act as a panacea for many of the ills of the countryside. It is essential we understand the role it can play as part of the overall rural economy and that we understand the issues and priorities of the industry so that tourism is managed wisely."

&#42 Better support

Among the areas for consideration highlighted in the paper are better business support for small enterprises, the quality and viability of rural attractions, ways of promoting local produce, encouraging the use of public transport, support for market towns and more co-ordination between national, regional and local initiatives.

Ms Noble adds that farm accommodation and attractions cannot work in isolation. "Its not enough to tell tourists which farms they can stay on. They also need to be told about local visitor attractions, where they can go walking, which pubs to go to for good food, where they can buy local produce. We need to pull all the different facets together."

The deadline for responses to the consultation paper is the end of May. Copies of the paper can be obtained from Paul Jeffries, policy manager at the English Tourism Council Tel (020-8563 3178) or e-mail (rural@englishtourism.org.uk).

Supply could outstrip demand if rural tourism is not managed wisely.