London businesses taste Olympic slump
LONDON – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
The Olympics have turned London into a tale of two cities, with shops, hotels, theaters and restaurants in the center suffering a tourist drought while crowds throng to the games a few miles to the east.
The huge Westfield Stratford City shopping center, smack beside the Olympic Park, is bustling with people visiting the games or simply catching some of the Olympic buzz while they shop. Cheerful London volunteers in pink and purple have been using megaphones to help marshal the crowds at Europe’s largest mall.
But across town at the West End – London’s main shopping and entertainment district – it’s eerily quiet. There’s plenty of space at restaurant patio tables, no need to elbow others out of the way on the sidewalks, and unusually attentive staff in the stores.
“It’s a fiasco,” said Peter Forrest, a street performer in Covent Garden, an area of shops, pubs and restaurants around a piazza that’s normally teeming with tourists.
Forrest, painting whiskers to his face for his role as Doggie Man, said it’s been “the worst two weeks ever for business.”
Many businesses blame London Mayor Boris Johnson, along with London transit bosses and games organizers, for scaring people away from central London.
Anticipating a huge strain on the city’s transit network from a predicted extra million travelers a day, they have been warning Londoners for months to plan ahead, seek alternative routes or work from home.
The message has gotten through – but too well, tourism chiefs say.
Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association, said London normally sees 300,000 foreign visitors and 800,000 domestic ones a day in August.
“These people have been told implicitly that they should stay away, and they have done so,” he said.
In Leicester Square – usually so chock-a-block with tourists that locals give it a wide berth – a few families sat enjoying urban picnics on Wednesday, while salespeople tried to drum up business for theater ticket booths from a trickle of passers-by. Olympic volunteers, deployed to give directions, did not find themselves in huge demand.
The gloom is repeated across London’s major tourist attractions. The London Zoo said it had 40 percent fewer visitors last week than during the same period a year earlier. The Natural History Museum said its galleries were unusually quiet.
Theater producer Nica Burns told the Evening Standard newspaper that her venues were “bleeding.”
The ghost town effect is all the more galling to businesses because the predicted transit chaos has not materialized.
Subway operator Transport for London says passenger numbers are up a modest 7.5 percent. On Wednesday it discontinued much-mocked loudspeaker announcements in subway stations featuring the mayor warning travelers that the network would be unusually busy.
Olympic organizers say road traffic is lighter than usual, and many of the controversial “Games Lanes” reserved for official Olympic traffic have been handed back to regular use.
The slump is not confined to the West End. Greenwich in southeast London, home to the Olympic equestrian competition, usually draws hordes of tourists to its lovely riverside park and historic sites including the Royal Observatory and the tea clipper Cutty Sark.
The government insists the situation is less bleak than businesses are making it sound.
“We are getting record numbers of people coming to London and overall the picture in the East End of London is very encouraging,” said Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Johnson, the mayor, was similarly defiant, insisting that “many, many thousands of people are flowing into London, the hotels are busy, the Olympic venues are attracting huge numbers.”
“These games are a one-off, an opportunity like no other to show London to the world,” Johnson said.
If the world shows up, that is. But for Londoners, at least, there’s an upside.
“It’s a bit relaxed,” said teacher Sonya McCullough, standing in a short line at the half-price theater ticket booth in Leicester Square. “It’s brilliant.”
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