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London businesses bemoan Olympic slump

  • People walk by empty tables in an eatery in Covent Garden in central London, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. People are heeding government advice and staying away from central London during the London 2012 Olympics. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

  • Empty tables are seen outside a pub near Covent Garden in central London, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. People are heeding government advice and staying away from central London during the London 2012 Olympics. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

  • People walk by empty tables outside an eatery in Covent Garden in central London, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. People are heeding government advice and staying away from central London during the London 2012 Olympics. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

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 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.” He added grumpily, “It’s because of Boris ... Boris told everybody not to come.”

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 an expected million visitors to the Olympics, 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 Wednesday, while sales people 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.

One American college student from Topeka, Kansas, who was traveling around Europe for the summer, was surprised at London’s tame atmosphere.

“We thought it would be more crazy, with people everywhere, clubs packed and a frenetic sort of vibe like other cities we’ve been to in Europe,” Jenny Logan as she walked near the Houses of Parliament. “But so far, the night life has been pretty tame and the little restaurants we wanted to explore in the cobblestone alleys have been deserted. What’s going on?”

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.” She said, “For my six theaters, last week was the worst this year ... I think the Olympics are great – but I feel like I’ve been the bulls-eye for the archery competition.”

And there’s even evidence people are postponing their nuptials until after the games. Christopher Woodward, director of London’s Garden Museum, said there had been a steep drop in the number of wedding receptions being booked during the Olympic and Paralympic games. That period runs from July 27 to Sept. 9.

“No one is getting married in London in August,” he said.

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. Olympic organizers say 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.

Peter Vlachos, a marketing expert at the University of Greenwich, has been surveying local businesses about the impact of the games. “One word came back: disaster,” he said.

“There are 23,000 people walking past [local shops] in the morning to get to the grounds, and at the end of the day the same 23,000 people rushing back to their hotels,” he said.

“The Olympics were sold to the business community as if it was going to be a huge windfall, and it hasn’t materialized,” Vlachos added.

The government insists the situation is less bleak than business are making it sound.

Britain’s Olympic Cabinet committee, a daily conclave of ministers, games officials and transport authorities, was told Wednesday that there were some signs London was actually busier than usual – although “there has been some displacement of crowds from parts of the west to the east end.”

“It is important to look at the big picture – the games are a global advert for London with benefits that will be reaped for many years,” the government said in a statement.

Johnson, the mayor, is 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 an unusually short line at the half-price theater ticket booth in Leicester Square. “It’s brilliant.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 03, 2012, on page 6.
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