London must become a global tourist magnet

 
Allister Heath
EXTRAORDINARY. That was the only way to describe the atmosphere at the Olympic stadium this weekend. Team GB’s astonishing triumph has enthused the nation – it has become virtually impossible to walk anywhere in London without spotting someone sporting a Union Jack – and Usain Bolt’s spectacular 100m Olympic record last night was a magical moment, a moving display of humanity’s never-ending quest for progress. The Olympics just keep getting better, a festival of achievement, talent, dedication and sportsmanship; and remarkably, in no small part thanks to the army of friendly volunteers, it has all taken place relatively smoothly so far.

Away from the sport, the situation has also improved, albeit not by much. The disastrous decline in activity in London’s main retail and cultural districts seems to have abated in the last two or three days. In part, this seems to be thanks to Londoners and other Brits realising that our capital city remains open for business and that many of the warnings of chaos issued by the authorities were massively exaggerated. That doesn’t mean that the situation has returned to normal – traffic remains very poor, as does attendance at many museums – but at least there has been something of a bounce-back compared with the immediate run-up to the Games and its first few days.

Footfall is finally improving in parts of London’s shopping districts, including Piccadilly, Haymarket, Shaftesbury Avenue and St James’s, as reported by Heart of London. Between Monday 30 July and Thursday 2 August, footfall was up 11.6 per cent on the previous week and 16.2 per cent up on the same week in 2011. But footfall doesn’t equate to sales. In many cases, shoppers are purchasing small items and souvenirs, rather than durable goods such as fridges; that is true even in Westfield Stratford, where shoppers are constrained by the fact that they (for understandable reasons) can’t take bulky items into the Games.

London Underground carried more passengers on Friday than on any other day in its history with 4.40m passengers, breaking the previous day’s record of 4.31m, according to Transport for London. In the same week last year, daily Tube passenger numbers were around 3.7-3.8m. The DLR carried more than half a million passengers in one day for the first time since it was created, 70 per cent higher than usual. Many of these, of course, are tourists related to the Olympics – it is good news that in terms of journeys at least they have more than replaced the slump in non-Olympic tourists and the reduction in commuters. But it still doesn’t tell us whether what they are spending is compensating for what is not being spent or produced by others.

The real lesson from the Olympics is that tourism needs to be one of London’s growth areas in the years ahead. But the key will be to manage a steep increase in flows of people from abroad while ensuring business as normal for the City and residents. This will require an enhanced infrastructure – and the only way to pay for it will be to tap the private sector. We need more airport capacity for a start. It is absolutely essential that the government gets its act together on this. London is a wonderful city; it is now time to maximise its potential as the greatest tourist destination in the Western hemisphere.

allister.heath@cityam.com
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