This weekend will see the traditional start to the tourism season in Britain – when hundreds of castles, historic houses, wildlife centres and other attractions open their doors to visitors after the winter break.
There’s no doubt however, that this year the tourist season has been overshadowed by the Foot and Mouth outbreak.
This disease has been a devastating blow for livestock farmers. Hundreds of them have seen their animals, livelihood and hopes for the future destroyed and many others fear they will suffer the same fate.
It is a human tragedy and they deserve our sympathy and help. That is why no resource, no effort and no time is being spared to bring this outbreak under control.
It’s also why we promise to support farmers both now, through this immediate crisis, and for the longer term to build a sustainable future for the countryside.
But foot and mouth has also hurt the tourist industry, indeed the whole rural economy – and, in the vast majority of cases, totally unnecessarily.
Bookings have been cancelled. Visitor numbers have fallen. This is true even in parts of the UK – and there are many of them, in fact the majority of them – which have not seen a single case of the disease.
The Government is putting in place measures to help the tourism and the countryside, through these difficult times – such as tax breaks or rates holidays, for village shops and pubs and other country businesses. And we’re urgently looking at what other help is needed.
But everyone I’ve met who works in the tourist industry over the last few days has made the point that, while Government assistance is helpful, what they actually need most is for the visitors themselves to return.
So again we are doing everything we can to get over the message – at home and abroad – that the whole of the UK is open for business, as indeed it is.
I know a lot of people from overseas visit this website regularly. And many of you may plan to visit the UK itself this year. You should come.
But I’ve seen some of the foreign news broadcasts about the impact of foot and mouth disease on Britain. I can promise you that they paint a picture of our country, which bears little relation to reality.
In our towns and cities, you wouldn’t notice any difference. Indeed in every village, town and city in the country, you can go into it. All the most famous landmarks from the Tower of London to Edinburgh Castle, from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford to historic Cambridge, Chester, York, Durham – are open for business.
In the countryside, yes, there are some restrictions, particularly on using footpaths, that go through farm land. But there is still a huge amount for you to see and do.
Many hundreds of attractions are open, even in the areas most severely affected. And more are opening all the time.
For example, in Cumbria – the region with the most cases – all the top ten visitor attractions are open, including the cruises on Lake Windermere and Ullswater. And of course the beautiful towns and villages are open as normal as well.
So I hope you will see for yourself. On this site, we’ve set out county by county what the exact situation is, and how you can find out exactly what is open – from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland.
I know, too, that many people in Britain have stayed away from the countryside because they believe this is the right thing to do. They want to help our farmers and help our rural communities.
But now it is clear where the disease is and the extent of it. The best help you can give is to come and visit. Of course, there are some simple rules to follow: don’t walk on farmland, and keep away from livestock. But that means a day out, or a weekend break, or a longer holiday can still be enormous fun – and just as relaxing as it ever was.
And if you come – and I hope you will – I know you will find a warm welcome.