London Calling ... But is anybody answering? Olympics empty most of the city
Want a hint on how to enjoy a great world city?
Go during the Olympics.
A myriad of sources are using one word to describe the tourism situation in London today, and that's "disastrous."
The Daily Telegraphi in England quoted Lastminute.com as saying the average room in London booked on a last-minute deal was available for 112 pounds ($175) a night compared with 133 pounds ($208) last year. Hotels.com says London prices this summer are about 25 per cent lower than average.
West End traders said business had slumped by as much as 70 per cent, with tourists and Londoners steering clear because of fears about overcrowding.
The Earl of Bradford, the owner of Porters restaurant in Covent Garden, told the Telegraph that business was "disastrous".
Nica Burns, the chief executive of Nimax Theatres, which owns half a dozen London venues, forecast that ticket sales would be down by 30 per cent over the summer.
"For my six theatres, last week was the worst this year. I think the Olympics are great, but I feel like I've been the bull's eye for the archery competition," she said.
The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which represents tourist attractions in London, said attendances over the past two weeks had fallen by about a third.
It's not unusual folks. People in Los Angeles in 1984 said they'd never seen traffic so light, for example.
It's entirely London's fault if this is happening. Hotels tried to gouge travelers by raising rates by huge amounts a year or so ago. Naturally, people rebelled and avoided bookings.
Now, the Games are here and a lot of rooms are empty. Which means it's a great time to visit London. You'll probably get a good (well, relatively good) hotel deal and the lineups at the British Museum should be much shorter than normal.
Plus you'll be able to wander down to Trafalgar Square or out to East London and get a feel for the Olympics, especially now that Britain has won its first gold medal, a first-place finish by the women's pairs in rowing that came Wednesday.
It's worth keeping in mind for future Games. Except the future Games aren't exactly in places of London's calibre. Yeah, the 2016 Summer Olympics will be in lovely Rio de Janeiro. But the 2014 Winter Games are in Sochi, Russia (not exactly on most folks' top 10 lists, although I hear it's a lovely spot on the Black Sea; see photo at right) and the 2018 Winter Games are in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Also pretty but not the sort of place most of us dream of visiting late at night when we can't get to sleep.
Still, it's a good lesson for future Olympic cities to keep in mind.
Also worth noting, while we're on the subject, is the long-term impact of hosting the Games. The modern-day Olympics cost billions and billions and billions of dollars. Yet they net almost no immediate tourism impact and often don't do anything for a city's long-term prospects.
Ask the folks in Athens how much they've benefitted from spending like drunken sailors on the 2004 Summer Games. Ask the people in Atlanta about the residual effects of the 1996 Games.
Vancouver has done pretty well since the 2010 Winter Olympics, but last I heard the waiters weren't exactly being run off their feet in Gastown.
No, the Olympics make very little sense from a travel standpoint. Yet we constantly have developers and hotel people and folks who should know better touting the benefits that will accrue to a city that goes into hock up to its eyebrows.
This doesn't mean the Games are entirely a bad idea. They can be quite good for a city. Contrary to the above examples, Barcelona used the 1992 Summer Games to parachute the city WAY up the European travel charts. But they did that by using the Olympics as an excuse to build a great city. They cleaned up the waterfront and added promenades and new beaches. They built fancy parks and bridges and overpasses and gave the jobs to top architects.
They spent like crazy, but they were left with tangible assets that are of use to future tourists. A big, empty stadium doesn't do much for tourism. Just ask Beijing, which has the lovely Birds Nest stadium sitting empty most of the time. Heck, last I heard at least one of the Athens summer facilties had been invaded by grazing sheep or goats, and how embarrassing is that for the International Olympic Committee?
London has done, apparently, a great job in cleaning up the east end of the city. They're not leaving behind too many stadiums. I don't know how many folks long term will flock to London to see the new, eastern portion of the city in its new duds. But at least they get some city building out of it and got to compress decades of work into a forced deadline period.
That's why some Toronto folks wanted to stage the 1996 Games; so the waterfront could finally get fixed up. Some Olympic rah-rah types still think the city should bid for a future Summer Games, maybe 2024. Personally, I don't know if we should bother any more.
The waterfront is virtually developed to within a centimeter of its life. The city is about to get two new, major luxury properties in the Shangri-La (probably opening for the general public next month) and the new Four Seasons Yorkville (in the fall). That's on top of the Ritz Carlton and the Trump already being open.
The city was just given a glowing review in Travel + Leisure magazine and also had a nice spread in the New York Times travel section on Sunday.
We're on the world map, folks. And we don't need to spend billions of dollars on stadiums and certainly not on new housing downtown.
One thing I think the Olympics COULD do for Toronto, however, is spur some desperately needed transit improvements. If the Games were to come, the mayor and the province and the feds and Karen Stintz would have to get together and formulate some speeded-up plans for transit to and from the airport and throughout the city so athletes and media types and Olympic sponsors could get around, not that sponsors actually, you know, go to the events that they get free tickets for.
Maybe it would be good for Toronto. Maybe it wouldn't. But the Olympics probably wouldn't bring us any huge influx of tourists. It certainly hasn't happened in London.