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After nerve agent attack, this UK city tries to woo back visitors

It has been almost a year since Kremlin intelligence officers attempted to kill a Russian defector in the British city of Salisbury by poisoning him with a nerve agent. That attack, and the subsequent death of a British woman, scared away tourists and shoppers, but authorities and residents are working to get the town’s economy back on track. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: It has been almost a year since Kremlin intelligence officers tried to kill a Russian defector in the British city of Salisbury by poisoning him with a nerve agent.

    That attack and subsequent death of a British woman last summer from the nerve agent scared away tourists and shoppers.

    As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, British authorities and the townspeople are working hard to get Salisbury's economy back on track.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At Salisbury's twice-weekly market, lively sales patter and cheap prices are an irresistible lure.

  • Shane Gilkes:

    Pound a punnet, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, seedless grape. Pound a bowl. Pound a punnet.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Stall holder Shane Gilkes is keen to consign the poisoning to history and projects an image of confidence and normality.

  • Shane Gilkes:

    Took three months to pick back up. But we're OK now. People are a bit more confident now back out in the town. And, yes, here we are, as you can see.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These two officers from the Kremlin's GRU intelligence agency intelligence agents are blamed for the sharp decline of Salisbury's economy. This is CCTV footage of them in the city last March.

    According to the British authorities, the two agents tried to kill Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by smearing a tiny amount of a nerve agent called Novichok on the door of their home in Salisbury.

    The Skripals survived, just. But the deadly nature of the assassin's invisible weapon scared visitors away. In the market square, at a stall selling Indian street food, Tony Dokhpanjan Singh is still suffering from the fear factor.

  • Tony Dokhpanjan Singh:

    We lost at least 60 percent, 60 percent losses when it happened. Then slowly, a little, it picked up. Now it's like, I would say, it's down about 30 percent at least. I'm down 30 percent. A lot of other people — a lot of people are struggling.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In order to prevent local businesses from going under, the county administration established an emergency fund and a task force under Pauline Church.

  • Pauline Church:

    We keep a close eye on our businesses. And some of the investment that we put into businesses, whether it was grants or helping them with business rates, et cetera, that was to prevent business from making staff redundant or closing down.

    And you have to ensure the local community remains buoyant and confident. What we really want to do is to bring visitors back to Salisbury, and that's starting to happen.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The restaurant where the Skripals dined before collapsing was closed for eight months. It has been spruced up and is now open for business.

    But close to the place where the Skripals were found comatose, these shops are having a disastrous time. Staff didn't want to talk on camera, but described sales as being almost nonexistent.

    Other retail workers talked about customers still being terrified. Sausage maker Jim Martin thinks that terror is unjustified.

  • Jim Martin:

    I just think it seems a bit ironic that the city's got I don't know how many thousand people living in it. Two people in the whole of that city got it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons expert and a senior adviser to Britain's Ministry of Defense. He's spent more than 30 years on battlefields around the world, assessing the impact of chemical warfare.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    I am pretty certain that 99 percent of the contamination has been identified. I mean, we have buried over 37 vehicles already. Hundreds of bags of contaminated material have either been incinerated or buried.

    And the Skripals' house in Salisbury is still being decontaminated. Apart from that, it's all gone.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The Skripals may have survived, but 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess didn't. She died last July, days after spraying what she thought was perfume on her wrists. The bottle contained Novichok and had been thrown away by the assassins. Her death shattered public confidence.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    This is the ultimate terror weapon. People are fixated by it and terrified by it, because the messaging, particularly from the British government, has been particularly poor.

    Salisbury is safe and open for business. I have absolutely — I probably know more than most people about this. I have no qualms at all of going to Salisbury and have no fear that we will have any more casualties.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Ten miles north of Salisbury is Stonehenge, the 5,000-year-old prehistoric Stone circle that's a World Heritage Site.

  • Louise Tunnard:

    For many people, Stonehenge is iconic. They have traveled all the way around the world. They want to go and stand by the stones.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Stonehenge had 1.5 million visitors last year, 400 thousand of whom came from North America. Normally, many would have visited Salisbury. But, last year, because of Novichok they stayed away, causing financial problems for the museum and staff like Louise Tunnard.

  • Louise Tunnard:

    We are an independent charity. And so the majority of our income comes from our visitors, from our ticket sales, from people coming to use the cafe and the shop. And so the impact has been big.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The museum is intensifying efforts to win back Stonehenge visitors with improved displays. The two Russian intelligence agents claimed that Salisbury's famous attractions were the only reason they visited the city.

  • Alexander Petrov:

    Our friends have been suggesting for quite a long time that we visit this wonderful city.

  • Margarita Simonyan:

    Salisbury, a wonderful city?

  • Alexander Petrov:

    Yes.

  • Margarita Simonyan:

    What makes it so wonderful?

  • Ruslan Boshirov:

    It's a tourist city. They have a famous cathedral there, Salisbury Cathedral. It's famous throughout Europe and in fact throughout the world, I think.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There's little prospect of ever bringing the Russians to justice, but their legacy lingers.

    The authorities in Salisbury may be putting on a brave face about how business here is improving, but it's clear that, nearly one year after the Novichok attack, some traders are still suffering. The worry for terrorism, experts, though, is that Salisbury has become a template for rogue governments or extremist groups which want to inflict maximum damage with a similar invisible deadly weapon.

    As memories of attacks at the Bataclan club in Paris and Berlin's Christmas market fade with the passing years, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon fears a new terrorist outrage inspired by Salisbury.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    The impact of this tiny amount of agent, you know, it's fixated the world for 10 months, the jihadis, the so-called Islamic State, the Dark Web. People running it at the moment are telling jihadis around the world to use chemical weapons, be it in the U.K., the U.S. or elsewhere.

    So that has had a profound effect. And, of course, we have seen the jihadis using chemical weapons frequently in Syria and Iraq.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    De Bretton Gordon believes mainland Europe is at greatest risk, because jihadis are able to move across frontiers more easily than in Britain or America.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

    What I would say to the American people is that they shouldn't worry unduly.

    I have recently run a conference and an exercise with the mayor of New York's office, looking exactly at this sort of thing. And, actually, the U.S. is better prepared than virtually any other country in the world to deal with this sort of thing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Nearly one year after the attack, staff at Salisbury Cathedral hope that visitors will start flocking back to see its copy of the Magna Carta, the 13th century human rights document which paved the way for democracy in Britain.

    Salisbury's sense of resilience is embodied by the museum's Louise Tunnard.

  • Louise Tunnard:

    It was a dreadful attack on the heart of our society, on human beings, real people. That was quite devastating.

    But there reaches a point where you have to pick yourselves up and carry on. We live here. We are bringing up children here. We're growing old here. We're falling in love here. That's how we have to carry on.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And, with that attitude, the Novichok attack will eventually become another footnote in thousands of years of rich history.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Salisbury.

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