London’s Olympic legacy: Are the Games good for tourism?
London is on a high. The Olympics went without a hitch, it didn’t rain (well, not much) and the home nation scored its most medals since 1908.
Underneath the joy, though, there’s anxiety -- £10.7 billion (US$17 billion) worth of it, the cost of the city’s sporty fiesta.
Visitor numbers to some of London's traditional attractions actually dropped during the Games fortnight. Old favorites like the Tower of London reported a 30 percent fall, as tourists focused their attention on the taut buttocks of the Brazilian volleyball team.
With the Eurozone in a protracted economic malaise, and some arguing that hosting the Games is more damaging than beneficial, what does this mean for British tourism in the years ahead?
Pundits say London’s fortunes will be more aligned with Barcelona than Athens.
A decade after Barcelona's 1992 Games the city saw a tenfold increase in tourist numbers and today it’s the sixth-most visited city in Europe.
Meanwhile, Athens' Olympic park is a ghost town.
“We’re expecting 9 million visits a year after the park fully reopens in 2014,” says Peter Tudor, who, as the London Legacy Development Corporation’s director of venues, is the man making sure London’s Olympic Park avoids the rusty fates of those in Beijing and Athens.
“While venues like the hockey and water polo stadiums will be dismantled, we’re bringing other attractions to sit alongside those permanent structures.
“We’re looking into building a museum about the 2012 Games, an ice-rink, plus space for concerts, food markets and festivals. People will need to add an extra day to their holiday to come out east.”
The economic perks of these new attractions though will likely take some time to filter through.
“In economic terms, the effect of the Games on tourism was pretty neutral,” says Mark Ambler, economic director for professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“You don’t get the bonanza that everyone anticipates. For every person who came to the city for the Games, there was someone else who decided it was time to steer clear of London.”
That means the theaters, bars and restaurants looking to recoup their Olympic losses need to be patient.
“In the longer term, people will start responding to what’s happened in the last month or so,” says Ambler. “As long as the opportunity is capitalized on, and there are more attractive things in the United Kingdom for visitors to do, the [amount] it cost to host the games could be covered by 2020.”
The main problem for London is that it’s already one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
Unlike recent hosts Beijing and Athens, it’s a city with nothing to prove. Thanks to the Games, it even has the dubious honor of being home to the world’s largest McDonald’s.
So what is there for previous visitors to return to?
For starters, there’s The Shard -- the latest, pointiest addition to London’s skyline and the newly crowned tallest building in Europe. Although it was officially inaugurated back in July, the 310-meter Renzo Piano-designed tower, situated near London Bridge, was off-limits to visitors during the Games.
When it opens to the public in February next year, the “View From the Shard” observation deck will offer unprecedented vistas of the city, taking in the South Bank, the West End and the skyscraper-strewn financial center.
And given that this is a city where a beer can cost as much as £6, expect no shortage of punters willing to cough up the £24.50 ticket price.
Culture comes to town
Then there are cultural events.
Next year London will host one of the biggest theatrical success stories in recent memory, in the shape of “The Book of Mormon,” a musical written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
The show, which regularly takes US$1.5 million a week on Broadway, brings its blasphemous songs to the Prince of Wales theater in March.
There’s also the biggest ever London Film Festival in September this year, the Freize Art Fair’s 10th anniversary in October, and, in 2013, the return of Glastonbury festival in Somerset.
Sporting spectacles will also continue to be a big draw, with the 2017 World Championships in athletics already confirmed.
Plans for a Formula One Grand Prix around the streets of London have also recently resurfaced, with F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone offering to pay the city more than £34 million to set up a street circuit amid the city’s most high-profile landmarks.
If it happens, it’ll make the Olympics look like a village fete.
So, assuming British tourism can make the most of the Olympic momentum, how much does the country stand to make from its moment in the spotlight?
Economic eggheads at the University of Nottingham have calculated an 84.4 percent chance of the Games having a positive impact, with a £5 billion growth in the national economy predicted by 2015.
British bank Lloyds has the most optimistic outlook (perhaps unsurprising, since it’s an official Olympic sponsor), predicting an overall boost of £16 billion to the UK economy by 2017, around a third of which is expected to come from the pockets of overseas visitors.
Even 1996 host city Atlanta -- hardly as glamorous or cosmopolitan as other recent hosts -- had, by 2010, gone from a transport hub with a Coca-Cola factory to America’s seventh most-visited city.
It seems London’s tourism charge will be positive, but more Mo Farah than Usain Bolt, with plenty left to do before the real effect of the city’s almighty gamble becomes clear.