YORK Minster is to charge visitors an entry fee for the first time.

The decision comes after a voluntary donations scheme launched last year failed to bring in enough cash.

The Dean and Chapter revealed today that fewer than a quarter of visitors had been forking out in response to appeals for donations of £3.50 per adult. At the same time, the number of overseas visitors had fallen again in the wake of the Iraq war.

The Dean, the Very Reverend Raymond Furnell, said it was a "very difficult decision", but there was no alternative if the Minster was to overcome a £600,000 deficit which threatened its long-term upkeep and development

However, the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, said today he was "obviously disappointed, even deeply saddened" by the news.

"Cathedrals are places for prayer and worship - a house of God - and our nation needs sacred space more than it has for many centuries," he said.

"I hope that this decision will be reversed at some time in the future when the Minster is back on firmer financial foundations."

Visitors emerging from the Minster had mixed views on charges. Robert and Margaret Ross, visiting York from Motherwell, Scotland, said they were happy to make a voluntary donation but did not think a compulsory fee was a good idea.

"It will drive folk away," said Mr Ross, suggesting that lottery money should go to the Minster instead of asylum seekers.

John Bale and Melanie Day, visiting York with six-year-old Hollie Bale and Summer Bale, aged three, said they would think twice about going in with the children if there was a fixed fee.

But American tourist Beth Fredrickson said she would probably expect to have to have to pay a charge, and would not mind if the amount asked was "fair".

York Tourism Bureau chief executive Gillian Cruddas said: "It's disappointing, because the Minster is York's icon attraction, drawing millions of people each year, but it's understandable."

She said it was essential that, having paid the fee, tourists felt they had got value for money.

The decision comes less than five months after the Minster decided to stick with the donations system for the time being, saying it had increased revenue.

The Dean, currently on a fundraising trip to America, stressed that charges would only apply to visitors and tourists. "Worshippers and pilgrims will continue to have free access for regular services, events and private prayer."

Parishes in the York Diocese and York residents would also be able to apply for a card giving special access to the Minster, but it is not yet known if there will be a charge for the card.

Tourists will begin paying the entry fee in the summer. The amount charged will be announced in the next few weeks.

Visitor services manager Steve Hemming said the level of service offered would be improved, and he would be looking at ways of "enhancing the experience" of a visit.

Updated: 10:50 Wednesday, April 23, 2003