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Tourism Trauma

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Foot-and-mouth disease continues to take a toll on the U.S. tourist trade to Ireland, with reports of cancellations as many customers continued to confuse FMD with mad cow disease.

New Jersey-based CIE Tours chief Brian Stack said that last week for the first time his business had experienced more cancellations than bookings. He attributed it to "basically ignorance and poor publicity."

At Dan Dooley Ireland Car Rental Service, spokesperson Attracta Lyndon said that "it seems like the bottom has literally fallen out of the tourist market. It’s down at least 50 percent."

Foot and mouth, a virulent flu-like illness, attacks only farm animals with hooves, whereas the much rarer and elusive mad cow disease is believed to be linked to a very uncommon degenerative brain illness in humans. Along with tour companies and airlines, the U.S. offices of the Northern and Southern Irish tourist boards have launched a campaign to persuade holidaymakers that "Ireland is open for business, for pleasure and for you," as a Bord Failte press release put it. Apart from having to walk through disinfectant mats at airports and in some other areas, visitors are mostly unimpeded, the release continued.

But Stack of CIE Tours says that the message is not reaching everyone. He recounted a conversation with one customer who canceled her trip, who had misinterpreted the messages about disinfecting as meaning that she would be dipped head to foot in a vat of chemicals.

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"Apart from that, she thought that she would be charged extra for having to be disinfected," said Stack, worried that ignorance about the situation will make for a devastatingly bad year for tourism and tour companies who promote Ireland. When a CIE Tours customer calls to cancel his Irish vacation, he is now passed on to a customer care specialist who seeks to persuade the customer that Ireland is still safe to visit.

Also concerned about the lack of clear information was Lyndon at Dan Dooley. She had spoken to a customer who had read that children should not be taken to rural areas and farms. This is because they might help spread the virus on their shoes by running through fields — but Lyndon said the customer was convinced that the virus was especially harmful to children. Another customer who had gone to Ireland had spent a week eating pasta, in the mistaken belief that any meat would be harmful to them.

Not everyone is convinced that foot-and-mouth disease will have such a bad effect — Brian Murphy, Aer Lingus spokesperson, is convinced that other factors would have made 2001 a slow year regardless of the disease.

"I don’t think foot and mouth is as much an issue as the economy or Wall Street," he said. "I have personal friends who were in Ireland last week, and although they said there were foot-and-mouth precautions in place, they said they still had a great time." Stack at CIE Tours said he has noticed that it is customers who have only paid a deposit on their trip who have been canceling. Customers who had paid for the entire amount were much less likely to cancel, he said.

At the Northern Irish Tourist Board office in New York, spokesperson Jayne Shackleford said that U.S. tourists should take note of the gradual relaxation of precautions in Northern Ireland. She pointed out that two of the province’s main attractions, the Giant’s Causeway and the Ulster-American Folk Park, are open for business again, after Northern Ireland’s agricultural minister, Brid Rodgers, announced the completion of the cull in County Armagh. The province’s only case of foot and mouth was in South Armagh, and the cull took place to create a firewall with the single outbreak in County Louth, just south of the border.

"Approximately 6,800 adult sheep and 2,500 lambs from a total of 81 holdings were dealt with," said Rodgers. By Tuesday it was expected that agricultural exports from Northern Ireland would resume after the successful cull.

One travel agent who declined to be named said that customers "were crazy" not to take advantage of Ireland this year.

"First of all," he said, "it ought to be properly named hoof-and-mouth disease. You need hooves to catch it. People are canceling in July and August, when, according to scientists, the summer warmth will have helped to kill off the virus. And the dollar is extremely strong right now." He added that if an accurate message about the disease’s limitations gets across, "this year could be better than last year by the finish."

Stack agreed. "There is absolutely no reason for people to not enjoy their trip to Ireland," he said.

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