Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The curse of The Olympics?

Or 'the blessing', as it may be....

I was up in London three times last week. I had been dreading it, because of the turmoil that had been widely anticipated due to additional traffic restrictions and increased tourist numbers while the Olympic Games are on.

In fact, it was a delightful experience. I have never seen the West End so uncrowded. At times, indeed, the city seemed almost deserted. On Tuesday morning, the biggest concentration of tourists I encountered anywhere was in front of Buckingham Palace, and they amounted only to a few dozens, rather than the hundreds that you more usually find there. Passing through Victoria station at around 8.30am - the tail-end of the rush hour, when trains and platforms are usually still packed like sardine tins - I found the Tube about as pleasant as I've ever known it during the working week, the volume of passengers more like what you'd find late in the evening or on a very slow Sunday afternoon.

Now, of course, this was early on in the Games, before the glamorous athletics events had started. And most of the venues are far out in the East End of London. So, I can't really judge what attendance at the Games has been like. And perhaps central London is becoming busier this week.

But... I think the expectation of the return-on-investment for the Olympics is not only that there will be a huge number of additional tourists attending the Games themselves, but that there will be a knock-on effect to boost overall tourism and tourist spending as well. That clearly wasn't happening last week: London was, compared to a regular summer, devoid of tourists. And I suspect much of the rest of the country has been as well (I'm hoping Edinburgh might be a little less frenetic than usual during the festival season there this month!). I've been hearing anecdotal evidence from people in the tourism and hospitality industries that numbers of visitors are massively down this month. It would seem that fears of excessive crowds, transport difficulties, limited availability (and consequent price-gouging) of accommodation, and so on, and perhaps for some people just a distaste for all the hoopla surrounding the Olympics - these are all powerful factors dissuading people from visiting an Olympic host country while the Games are on.

Most of the revenue from the dratted event comes, I imagine, from the major sponsors and the TV companies (ticket sales, I would guess, are not a major contributor). But I wonder how far this revenue can offset not only the massive costs of creating the infrastructure for the Games but the danger of a huge DIP in tourist revenues.

This might be a relatively new phenomenon: as the Games have grown so much bigger over the past couple of decades (with improved TV coverage and the abandonment of amateurism), they have perhaps become progressively more disruptive and offputting to non-Olympic tourists. But not all Olympic cities will have felt this effect so acutely. Sydney may have done to some extent; but it is too remote to attract very large numbers of visitors from Europe or America, so I'd guess that the Olympics were probably a net boost for them in overseas tourism, though perhaps not much of one. Athens almost certainly did suffer from this effect; but other reasons, such as concerns about the city's preparedness, were blamed for poor attendance figures there. Beijing of course suffered very dramatically, but that was a self-inflicted wound: the Chinese government more or less banned foreign tourism during the Games, in the name of 'security' (i.e., heading off any possibility of embarrassing political demonstrations by visiting human rights activists). London might be in a uniquely vulnerable position, since it is such a huge tourist draw without the Olympics. However many people may have come to London from overseas specifically to watch the Games, I'd be willing to bet that there is a significantly larger number who have chosen to stay away.

Again and again we have seen that venues built for the Games are put to little use thereafter. If the argument that the Games boosts tourism is shown to be fallacious, there will be very little reason for any city to seek to host the event any more. I think this could be the beginning of the end for the Olympic Games: they have got TOO DARNED BIG, and are starting to sink under their own weight.

It's a great pity for the UK's national coffers, and potentially a disaster for the tourist industry here - but for ordinary folks like me, it is very, very pleasant to be able to walk around London streets and to ride London trains and buses that seem to have lost 70% of their normal population.

Dubious statistical footnote: I saw on the news this evening (8/8) that tourist spending was allegedly up by 8% in the first week of the Olympics. They weren't very clear on what this was "up" over - average tourist revenues in the last week of July over a spread of recent years, or just last year? Nor were they very clear on the area to which the statistic applied - the whole country, the whole of London, or just the area around the main venues in East London? I suspect it was supposed to be for the whole of London measured against this time last year. If spending at the venues is going really well, I can imagine that raising the total slightly. And theatre ticket sales were mentioned in the report as performing particularly strongly (nighttime, when most of the Olympic events are over). But from what I saw last week, there can't be any doubt that most non-Olympic tourist spending (during the day, in the centre of London) is hugely down on a normal year at the moment.

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