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SARS and war blamed for cut in visitors

VISITOR NUMBERS were down at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral in 2003, in common with most of Britain’s leading tourist attractions, it was reported this week.

The three cathedrals remain in the top 20 attractions, a list headed by two free attractions, Blackpool Pleasure Beach (5,737,000 visitors) and the British Museum (4,584,000), both of which saw a fall. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), which produced the figures, ascribed the drop in part to last summer’s heatwave.

Of the three cathedrals, St Paul’s, with 710,975 visitors, suffered a ten-per-cent drop. Global factors such as the economy, the terrorism threat, the war in Iraq, and the SARS virus had been the most influential, said a spokeswoman for the cathedral on Tuesday. The prolonged closure of the Central line had been a local factor. Charging was not an issue, she said. “Broadly speaking, people understand why we charge, and obviously we go to great lengths to explain to them why we do.”

The trend is reversing at St Paul’s, however. From September last year, the figures improved markedly, and the cathedral is currently running 11 per cent up.

At Westminster Abbey, where numbers fell by five per cent to 1,002,718, no one was complacent about the fall, but it was less than expected, said John McAngus, an Abbey spokesman, on Tuesday.

Only seven per cent of the Abbey’s paying visitors come from the UK: more than 60 per cent are from the United States and Canada, and the remainder from Japan, Europe, and Australia.
“The number of overseas visitors to London, especially Americans, had fallen, and our figures more or less reflected the trend in numbers,” said Mr McAngus.

The Abbey, which has charged for entry since 1997, receives no outside funding from Church or state, he said. “Visitors are critical to us. Unless money comes through from tourists, we can’t manage the rest. We are continuing wherever possible to promote ourselves, at airports, for example,” said Mr McAngus.

Domestic visitors account for 75 per cent of the total at Canterbury Cathedral, which saw a drop of four per cent, to 1,060,166. “We knew last year was going to be bad, because we were getting cancellations at the start of the year,” said Christopher Robinson from the cathedral on Tuesday.

Many of those cancelling were Americans and Japanese. “But over the last two or three months, perhaps because of the rise in value of the euro, we’re actually seeing more visitors from the Continent. So I hope this year will be better,” said Mr Robinson.
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