A NORTH Pennines National Park could provide the answer to the fragile, rural economy in Weardale and Teesdale.

A plan being developed by Northumbria Tourist Board for the future of tourism in the region includes a possible new national park.

Tourism bosses believe it could revitalise the fortunes of Weardale and Teesdale and allow the North-East to shed its image of redundant pit heads and disused shipyards.

Peter Sloyan, chief executive of Northumbria Tourist Board, said: "The whole thing about the North Pennines and Durham Dales is that they have never been discovered.

"If the North Pennines were a national park it would have much more visibility and would be the least expensive way of creating awareness.

"National parks are recognised throughout the world. As part of a greening of our region, and for tourism in general, I think it would be very, very powerful."

Tourism brought £1.5bn into the region last year and employs about ten per cent of the North-East's workforce. But the region also lost about £350m in revenue during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis in 2001.

A new national park would have to be created by an Act of Parliament and would involve a lengthy consultation process with local communities.

Planning issues would transfer to a national park authority.

Mr Sloyan, who anticipates opposition from some landowners and farmers, said: "The tourist board is neutral over this, but we are for a wider debate and the benefits it could bring to the region."

Councillor Phil Hughes, leader of Teesdale District Council, recognised the benefits to tourism, but said many people felt there were negative aspects with regard to the more stringent planning rules that applied within national parks and that half the people on the board may have a national interest rather than a local one.

The park proposal came as a result of the tourist board's Internet-based consultation process towards its future strategy, to be unveiled next month.

It is being carried out before regional development agency One NorthEast takes over responsibility for the tourist board in April.

* To register your comments on the proposed national park visit www.livetourism.net