Where did all the tourists go?

Liz Claman talks to Westfield co-CEO Steven Lowy about the Olympics.
Liz Claman talks to Westfield co-CEO Steven Lowy about the Olympics.
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This West End Vietnamese restaurant sits empty despite an influx of tourists into London for the 2012 Olympics.

Mark Talkington

Evening rush hour in Central London and the main streets are bustling. All along Charing Cross and Oxford Street residents and visitors alike pour into the Tube stations, off to destinations unknown during the busiest summer London has had in recent memory.

But it’s not supposed to be like this. Crowds were expected to be streaming out of the Tube stations and into Soho, the heart of the entertainment district, where shopkeepers and their employees were anxious to welcome their money into waiting cash registers.

“Ever since the Olympics, tourists aren’t being very touristy,” said Hilary, a bartender at the Spice of Life pub on Moor Street who didn’t want to give her last name. “We were supposed to have something like 10 million more people in town this summer. You’d think it would be tough to be getting around here.”

It’s not. In fact, it’s mostly just business as usual for shopkeepers, restaurant owners and others who were told to expect the worst by officials for months leading up to the Olympics.

At the historic Palace Theatre, where you can catch “Singin’ in the Rain” for about $80, there are plenty of seats available. “We have the occasional sellout,” a ticket seller replied when asked about availability on a Friday night. “Things are pretty much normal right now.”

A normally bustling street in London’s West End is nearly vacant during rush hour. Business owners are asking local and UK officials: Where are my customers?

Mark Talkington

The same story can be told at Cards Galore. The shopkeeper pushed the cards to the back for the summer, offering instead an array of Union Jack-plastered mugs, plastic double decker buses, and official Olympic merchandise, ready to cash in on heavy demand.

“We had more devoted to the Jubilee (celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years as Britain’s ruling monarch) than the Olympics,” explained Akran Alkassan as he waited for somebody to bring a purchase to his cash register. “It’s about the same as any other year. There are as many tourists this year as there were last year.”

So what gives? There are two theories making the rounds, especially after local papers dubbed Soho a “ghost town.” The first is that too many locals heeded the advice of officials, who warned that London would be a madhouse of tourists when the games came to town. The other is that so much money and attention was focused on revitalizing the East End (where the Olympic Village is entered by what is now Europe’s largest mall in total size, Westfield Stratford City) that the West End was sure to lose out.

“A lot of Londoners went out into England or into Europe this summer,” Hilary said. “I think five million people disappeared. And they’ve been replaced by five million Olympics people, who are all out at Olympics venues.”

For their part, UK and city officials, the same ones who warned of an impending crush, acknowledge that some parts of the city are hurting during the Olympics. Still, they claim business owners who planned properly are reaping the benefits now. And they counter that increased business in the East End (reportedly 40,000 more daily visits) has offset reports of foot traffic being down in the West End by five percent, giving London a boost overall.

“Some West End businesses have done extremely well because they’ve marketed on the back of the Olympics,” Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the London Evening Standard last week. He bristled at the thought the West End had turned into a ghost town, labeling the talk “absolute nonsense.”

Olympics Minister Hugh Robert told BBC TV: “The games were won seven years ago. There’s been ample time to plan for it, to put in place marketing strategies.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose voice could be heard in the Tube warning commuters of busy days ahead, has a marketing strategy of his own in mind. The mayor and business leaders are said to be planning a “charm offensive” to lure Londoners and visitors back to the West End. And on Friday and Saturday, the Stratford mall was closed to visitors who didn’t have tickets to Olympic events.

The mayor’s warnings have also gone silent in the Tube.

“I think everybody blames my kind of Hiroshima Tube announcement,” he told the Evening Standard Friday. “But actually if you look at what really happened, there was a massive amount of media, and every time I was asked about the Olympics on TV they said, ‘It’s going to be a meltdown, it will never work.’

“That fear proved groundless. We have a city that is running brilliantly, and it’s incredibly, powerfully positive for London.”

Officials expect any beef West End businesses have with them now will be a non-issue eventually.

“All this publicity in every corner of the planet can only help our restaurants and hotels, and I think this is going to be a massive boost,” Hunt said.

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