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June 2006

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How Beatrix Potter opens doors in Japan

While the rugged charms of the Lake District attract thousands of Japanese visitors each year, a more diminutive feature also helps the region's economy. His name is Peter Rabbit. And as Clarissa Satchell reports, with production of a Hollywood biopic about Beatrix Potter underway in the Lakes, a business delegation to Tokyo hopes it will bring visitors flocking

In the grounds of a children's zoo near Tokyo's Daito Bunka University stands a replica of Beatrix Potter's former home Hill Top Farm.
The building, opened in April 2006, houses an archive of the writer's work owned by the university and pays testament to the enduring popularity of Potter's work in Japanese society - and the impact this has on the economy of the UK's Lake District.
While the Cumbria Tourist Board doesn't have definitive figures, they estimate that of around 11,000 visitors to the Lakes in 2005, 5 per cent were Japanese - and anecdotal evidence suggests that Japanese tourists were among the highest spenders.
Not surprising, then, that the production of Hollywood film Miss Potter has sent a ripple of excitement through the Lakes' business community.
Oscar-winning actress Ren\xe9e Zellwegger is filming at locations including Potter's former properties Hill Top Farm and Yew Tree Farm - the latter of which is now a guest house.
The scope for specialised tours and packages is evident and a delegation including representatives from tourism businesses, the Cumbria Tourist Board and the National Trust, have embarked on a mini trade mission to Tokyo, funded by the Northwest Regional Development Agency.
Kirstie Sobue from the Lake District Japan Forum, who spent 15 years living in Japan before returning with husband Hideyuki Sobue to live near Lake Windermere, led the delegation.
"Business in Japan is very relational - people really appreciate you showing your face and saying: "Thank you for your business'," she says.
"We decided to hold a dinner for the operators and make about nine appointments a day to build direct relationships between our businesses and operators there. Peter Rabbit is by far the most well-known character from the books. A lot of people will have heard about the Lake District purely because of him - he's licensed through a company in Tokyo and last time I spoke to them, he was being used to advertise 85 products - everything from clingfilm to books about the Lake District.
"There is a great interest in the natural world in Japan and animal cartoon characters are extremely popular. He has a very squeaky-clean image, which seems to appeal to a wide demographic so he is a great draw for the Lake District. We aim to facilitate people who see the film and want to visit the Lakes as much as possible."
The delegation includes representatives from The World of Beatrix Potter, English Lakes Hotels, Windemere Lake Cruises and Coniston Coppermines.
Graham Wilkinson is marketing manager for Mountain Goat Tours, which also owns Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel - once owned by Potter.
"Japanese tourism is one of our most important markets," he says. "We haven't seen as many American tourists as we'd like since the London bombings but the Japanese market has always held firm, with the exception of foot and mouth.
"What seems to impress Japanese tourists most is the openness of the countryside and the link with Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth. One of our most popular tours is taking Japanese tourists to Yew Tree Farm to bake scones."
Liz Houseman represented the National Trust, which manages several properties in the Lake District, including Hill Top Farm and Yew Tree Farm. She visited the replica of Hill Top House during the week-long trip to Toyko.
"Over 30 per cent of visitors to Hill Top, where many of her books are set, are Japanese tourists and we want to maintain that as well as promoting our new products," she says.
"New walks will incorporate places such as Yew Tree Farm used as filming locations as well as places which inspired Potter to write and draw. We are trying to get the tour operators to include these into their tours for next year."
While the Lakes still attract a healthy slice of the UK's tourist market, 2005's London bombings and other factors could dent visitor figures in 2006.
"The Lakes apparently overtook London as the most requested destination in Tokyo tourist offices a few years ago, but there have been signs that we're losing visitors to the Cotswolds," she says. "They've packaged themselves very effectively as quintessential "old England' and there's good access from Heathrow.
"The Lake District has capacity and accessibility challenges. You can't bring a huge bus down certain roads and sometimes it's difficult for operators to understand. Our mission is to explain why the Lake District is worth making the effort for. Hopefully interest
generated by the film will help."

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