London businesses bemoan Olympic slump

The Olympics have turned London into a tale of two cities, with shops, hotels, theatres and restaurants in the centre suffering a tourist drought while crowds throng to the games a few miles to the east.

Eerie quiet blankets city's main shopping and entertainment district

A waiter stands by empty tables at an eatery by the Royal Festival Hall in the South Bank in central London on Wednesday. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

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, theatres and restaurants in the centre suffering a tourist drought while crowds throng to the games a few miles to the east.

The huge Westfield Stratford City shopping centre, 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."

"It's because of Boris," he added grumpily. "Boris told everybody not to come."

Officials to blame?

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 travellers a day, they have been warning Londoners for months to plan ahead, seek alternative routes or work from home.

The message has got 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 sales people tried to drum up business for theatre 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 per cent fewer visitors last week than during the same period a year earlier. The Natural History Museum said its galleries were unusually quiet.

'Bleeding' businesses

Theatre producer Nica Burns told the Evening Standard newspaper that her venues were "bleeding."

"For my six theatres, last week was the worst this year," she said. "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 per cent. 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.

No windfall in sight

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."

The government insists the situation is less bleak than business 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.

And he insisted West End numbers also were holding up.

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."