Fears are growing for the future of independent traders in market towns and villages amid dwindling numbers of tourists, whose spending provides the economic foundations for the businesses.
Passing trade has slumped due to crippling fuel prices while many visitors who do decide to travel are becoming increasingly frugal amid the economic crisis.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s head of recreation, tourism and outreach, Julie Barker, admitted the economic crisis has had a “profound effect” on visitor numbers. The authority had hoped to raise £386,000 in car parking fees from April to September, but the final figure was just £338,000 – a shortfall of more than 12 per cent.
The problems have been compounded by the Highways Agency’s controversial decision to get businesses to pay for replacement tourism signs on the A1. The original signs were removed during a multi-million pound upgrade, which also saw a turn-off to Masham removed.
The Highways Agency agreed to put up new signs on the northbound carriageway – as long as £36,000 is raised by the community. A campaign is being intensified by business owners in towns including Masham and Leyburn to raise the cash.
Andy Brook, who runs countrywear outfitters Royals of Leyburn, which relies on tourists for nearly half its trade, is spearheading the campaign.
He said: “The situation is dire, and many businesses are struggling to survive.”
Traffic surveys revealed about 250 cars were passing through Masham each hour before the A1 upgrade, but the figure has declined to barely 100.
The Highways Agency stressed it is committed to “delivering an acceptable solution”.
But the Masham-based T&R Theakston’s brewery’s executive director, Simon Theakston, claimed the decision not to replace the A1’s brown tourist signs is undermining trade.
He added: “The longer they (the Highways Agency) leave it the more embarrassing the mistake becomes and the more irritated will be the people of the Dales.”
Staff at Swinton Park in Masham admitted it has been a tough period since the launch of an £800,000 holiday park, called the Bivouac, on the estate last April.
Spokeswoman Felicity Cunliffe-Lister said: “It is in our interests for Masham to remain a vibrant market town. The success of Swinton Park is not down to the estate alone – what makes it special is the surrounding area.”
Flo Grainger, who runs the Old Station cafe and caravan park in Masham with her husband, Bill, said the situation was now “absolutely desperate”. The cafe’s opening times have been scaled back in the last two years, and it only opens on a Sunday outside the main tourism season.
The Tory MP for Skipton and Ripon, Julian Smith, has been campaigning for the A1 signs to be replaced and admitted falling trade is “extremely concerning”. He added: “The cost of the signs is a major challenge. It is a hugely frustrating situation, and one that needs to be resolved.”
Welcome to Yorkshire’s chief executive, Gary Verity, said tourism was hit nationally after the second wettest year on record in 2012.
But he stressed tourism across Yorkshire rose by 16.3 per cent in the year up until August compared with the previous 12 months. He said the region’s profile would be heightened when the Tour de France’s Grand Départ is staged in Yorkshire in 2014 while a third series of the ITV show The Dales will be screened this year.