The foot and mouth epidemic hit visitor numbers at Britain's youth hostels. Now they are fighting back with a new campaign to attract more young people into the countryside. Phil Revell reports
The Youth Hostels Association has launched a campaign to encourage more young people to experience the outdoors. It operates 225 hostels throughout England and Wales and six out of 10 of its visitors are young people - but it would like to see more. In particular, the association wants to attract more school trips and boost opportunities for young people to travel, either independently or as a group.
"Travel away from home is an important stepping-stone to adulthood and we want more young people to have that opportunity," said YHA chief executive Roger Clarke.
The YHA and its Scottish equivalent are independent charities and the current campaign should be seen in the context of the heavy losses sustained by hostels in the summer of 2001, when foot and mouth disease cut visitor numbers by 20 per cent. In some areas, such as the Lake District, visits were down by 50 per cent.
Around 250,000 young people each year visit youth hostels in England and Wales with school and youth groups. The YHA is urging the Government to require schools and local education authorities to give all young people the chance of two residential visits during their school career. This echoes the call by the Institute for Outdoor Learning for a residential experience to be an integral part of the national curriculum.
The YHA would also like trip leaders to be able to take an accredited qualification under the control of a single awarding body. It also wants to see more research into school trips.
"Data on participation by young people in trips is scanty," said a YHA report released alongside the campaign. "Informal evidence is that some youngsters have many opportunities; others few or none."
December's campaign launch at the House of Commons was marked by a speech from Young People and Learning Minister Stephen Twigg, who acknowledged the "immense benefits" of outdoor education.
The campaign is supported by organisations, including the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services. The Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which inspects outdoor education providers, was also involved.
The YHA intends to develop the training programmes it runs for teachers on organising residential trips, and to help schools carry out risk assessments. It will also advise on safe independent travel.
"Thousands of young people enjoy school trips and residential visits each year," said Roger Clarke. "They return home safely, enthused and excited by the experience."