Salisbury struggles with Skripal poisoning infamy as tourists stay away | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 27.04.2018
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Salisbury struggles with Skripal poisoning infamy as tourists stay away

Residents of the quaint English city are eager for life to return to normal after the Russian spy poisoning case. Businesses are counting the cost as tourists give the city a wide berth.

When Russian spy Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury on March 4, the intrigue that surrounded the nerve agent poisoning case brought the world's media to the sleepy English city.

As they sent back footage of investigators, wearing protective gear, securing several nearby sites, and the military being deployed around the historic town, Salisbury quickly saw a large drop off in tourism.

Close to the prehistoric Stonehenge, the city is home to an 800-year-old cathedral and several leading examples of early English architecture. So even in winter, Salisbury is normally bustling with foreign and domestic visitors.

That meant the fall in tourism was immediately felt by Salisbury's business community, who count on an estimated 5 million arrivals ever year.

Read more: Sergei Skripal: The former spy poisoned with a nerve agent

Großbritannien Salisbury Cathedral (picture-äalliance/AP Photo/M. Dunham)

Salisbury's cathedral is a must-see location for many tourists and the town is just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Stonehenge

City shunned

"At the end of March we were about 20 to 25 percent down on last year,” Jane Morgan, Director of Communications and Development at Salisbury Cathedral, told DW.

The cathedral — where one of four remaining copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, Britain's Middle Ages version of a constitution, can be found — does not receive government subsidies or funding from the Church of England, Morgan said. Visitor fees, and donations, are relied on to help meet its annual 5 million pound running costs.

Morgan said while tourists are starting to return, each time the gripping story takes a new twist, visitor confidence is affected.

A few minutes away from the cathedral, Lydia Williams runs an independent coffee shop close to where the Russian double agent and daughter dined before being found unconscious.

"The number of regulars and tourists has dropped significantly, so it has affected me massively,” Williams told DW, estimating that at one point, her takings fell by up to 2,000 pounds (€2,300, $2,800) per day.

Cordons don't help

Similar stories are recounted as I move from store to store, avoiding police cordons and metal fences around the scenes of the crime. Some shop owners tell me their takings are down up to 60 percent since March.

Workers in protective suits in Salisbury (picture-alliance/PA Wire/B. Birchall)

Images of workers in protective suits following the poisoning didn't help Salisbury's image

Andy Maul, who runs a boutique wine and cheese bar in the city, said revenue took a "very sharp nosedive” because people were worried whether there would be another poisoning incident.

"We've had several bookings that cancelled, and the reason was: 'We don't want to come to Salisbury, it's not safe!'” Maul said.

Concerns remain about whether the poison — a type of Novichok nerve agent — is still present in pockets of Salisbury.

Despite a multi-million pound decontamination operation being put in place immediately after the poisoning, traces of the nerve agent have been found at at least nine sites throughout the city where the retired Russian intelligence officer and his daughter had visited, including at their home.

Read more: The curious case of Yulia Skripal's recorded phone call

The pair dined at a popular restaurant, known as Zizzi's, and then had drinks at a nearby pub, the Mill. They were discovered motionless on a bench near the Maltings shopping precinct on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

While the sight of people working in military grade protective gear is enough to keep many tourists away, the morbid fascination surrounding the case has brought a new kind of visitor to Salisbury.

Rise of dark tourism

"There has been a number of curious tourists. They want to see the bench where it happened, want to see the Zizzi's, want to see the Mill, the places that the international and national news has been covering,” Maul told DW.

Rather than encourage that type of tourism, the business community and local council are working on efforts to help the city recover. Free parking may win over a few visitors, while a compensation scheme has been launched for firms affected by the subsequent investigation.

"I'm currently looking into getting some help with business rates (local business tax). My rates are quite high due to my location. If my location is then tarnished, that's how I think I'm justified to get some relief,” said Williams.

The Mill pub in Salisbury (DW/S. Shackle)

Salisbury has seen a rise in so-called dark or black tourism, seeking to retrace the steps of the poisoning case

The local tourism agency has been given a 200,000 pound grant from the British government to assure tourists that the city remains safe.

Read more: Russia's Sergey Lavrov claims Sergei Skripal was poisoned with Western BZ nerve agent

Open for business

"DEFRA (Britain's environment agency) has said the city is completely safe for residents and visitors. Everything's open and we're just getting on with our lives as normal,” insisted Morgan.

"I think that people need to not be scared to come in, because everything else is still open, there's just a few cordons you have to go round,” Williams added.

Even so, due to the unique nature of the incident, business owners can't predict how tourism will fare in Salisbury, especially following the subsequent diplomatic spat with Russia.

"Something could snowball quickly and we could be talking about it in the history books,” said Alex Witty, who works regularly in Williams' coffee shop.

"But often with these events, something else comes up in the news and it all gets forgotten about. Hopefully it'll get back to normal but Salisbury will always be the place where this happened.”

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