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No St. Patrick's in Dublin

Parades are canceled amid fears over foot-mouth disease

DUBLIN — To the disbelief of Dubliners and their foreign guests, fears of foot-and-mouth disease have driven St. Patrick's Day out of Ireland.

"We're in disaster-recovery mode," said John Cox, a tour operator coordinating visits this week by marching bands from Colorado to Delaware.

All had hoped to march Saturday before an audience exceeding 1 million, but now must make do with private performances for traveling friends and family — just one casualty in the wider, and increasingly international, war to bar the livestock disease.

The outbreak's impact is being particularly felt just across the Irish Sea.

With empty hotels, padlocked parks and barricaded pathways, the British countryside is a lonely place.

As officials geared up to slaughter as many as a million animals in an intensified bid to stem the spread of the disease, tourism operators said Friday they want the government's help in launching an ad campaign to boost the nation's image with tourists.

"We have heard from hoteliers who are receiving anything up to 75 percent booking cancellations, and some have lost 100 percent of bookings," said Ken Kelling of the English Tourism Council, which estimates the outbreak is costing the industry as much as $360 million a week.

More than 26 million foreign visitors spend more than $18 billion in Britain each year. Domestic tourism generates $37.5 billion more annually.

Britain has taken increasingly draconian measures to combat the highly contagious livestock virus since the first case was confirmed Feb. 20, closing parks, forests and footpaths and severely restricting the movement of animals.

Nearly a month later, the number of infected areas has swelled to more than 265 with no signs of tapering off.

On Friday two tourism groups — the British Incoming Tourist Operators Association and the British Hospitality Association — asked the government for $7 million for an ad campaign to burnish Britain's image abroad.

The groups said tourists should know that "the vast majority of Britain's hotels, attractions and heritage sites are open for business as usual."

Meanwhile, the expanded animal cull — which calls for healthy sheep and pigs to be destroyed within two miles of infected sites in the worst-affected areas — has divided farmers. The National Farmers' Union has backed the plan, but other farming groups are strongly opposed.

Andrew Spence, northeast co-ordinator for Farmers For Action, warned the Agriculture Ministry's plans would spark "rural revolt."

"Farmers up here will not tolerate anyone coming in and slaughtering animals that are not infected," he said.

One case of foot-and-mouth has been confirmed in France and another in Northern Ireland, spurring Europe to strengthen its internal defenses against the disease. Countries across the world are slamming their doors on European livestock and meat, further damaging an industry crippled by mad cow disease and falling prices.

Meanwhile, the Argentine government admitted that it hid an outbreak of the bovine disease for months before divulging the problem this week.

Ranchers and beef industry officials said Argentine authorities were aware of the outbreak by the end of last year, the Washington Post reported. Largely in agreement with the meat industry, they hid the problem to avoid the panic sweeping Europe over "mad cow" disease. By January, sources said, the government secretly began vaccinating thousands of head of cattle in infected areas in at least three rural provinces.

The government confirmation prompted immediate bans on imports of Argentine beef in the United States, the European Union and other nations. The bans have devastated the beef industry, which has long been an integral part of Argentine national pride and only recently overcame a long export slump due to an earlier outbreak of the disease.

Meanwhile, Ireland relaxed some restrictions Friday. Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh said indoor events unconnected with livestock could resume immediately, and soccer, rugby and Gaelic football were cleared to resume on March 23. Curbs on show-jumping and horse and greyhound racing remain in effect.

Dublin and other Irish towns, however, will have no official St. Patrick's Day festivities.

"At the moment I've got 18 tons of fireworks under my bed," said Dominic Campbell, artistic director for Dublin's planned four-day St. Patrick's Festival, whose frustrated organizers and sponsors hope may be staged later this year.

"I don't know if we'll still be able to call it St. Patrick's Day. But at least the weather will be better then," he said.

Foot-and-mouth disease poses no threat to humans, but when it strikes countries or trade blocs that had previously been certified as free of the ailment — such as Britain and the rest of the European Union — it can have disastrous commercial consequences.

Britain has already condemned more than 200,000 animals under its initial slaughter program, which called for infected animals and any they came in contact with to be destroyed.

Ireland's woes have not reached these shores. Salt Lake City's St. Patrick's Day parade begins at 10 a.m.