THE second Gulf War, the Sars virus and the shaky US economy have all caused a drop in numbers of overseas tourists coming to York, leading city hoteliers have said.

Tourism bosses used today, St George's Day, to launch a major new initiative, Project George.

It is aimed at tempting British visitors into York to offset overseas tourists lost because of the Gulf War. June Nelsey, managing director at the Monk Bar Hotel, said an 80-strong group of Texans had cancelled a five-day university conference at the Monk Bar because of fear of flying.

Ms Nelsey said: "It cost us about £20,000. In overseas visitors terms, there has been a huge drop-off. The US economy is bad, and when that is the case, Americans do not travel."

But Ms Nelsey said business trade from the US was still good, describing York as "buoyant".

David Brooks, general manager at the Dean Court Hotel, in Duncombe Place, said that while visitor numbers were up in March and April, they were still down on the levels hoped for. Mr Brooks said: "The war has had an effect, as has Sars. There is much less international travel going on, but there are still plenty of Americans about. "One lady has been coming here every year for several years and visited us this year without a second's thought."

Helen Douglas, manager of York Dungeon, said overall visitor numbers had dropped since the war started.

"French and German groups have cancelled. The UK school market is still travelling, but there has been a noticeable overall drop," she said.

Jorvik spokeswoman Gillian Neild said: "There have been some cancellations due to the international situation, mainly French school groups, but we have been able to get people into Jorvik in their place.

"Easter has been very busy for us, and we are expecting that to continue."

Gillian Cruddas, chief executive of York Tourism Bureau, said visitor levels were still low in York after September 11 and the foot and mouth disease outbreak.

She said: "People are still travelling, it is not as though they have disappeared off the face of the earth, but numbers are still low. Hopefully it will pick up, but nobody knows when, nobody has a crystal ball."

Mrs Cruddas said she understood the decision to start charging for entry at York Minster - which was also announced today - but added it was "disappointing."

Updated: 10:57 Wednesday, April 23, 2003