Londoners were warned of huge queues for everything during the Olympics. Instead the roads are quiet, restaurants empty and museums deserted. It’s tough for business, but good for tourists
On the back of Jay Osborne’s pink-roofed ice-cream van, there is a familiar sign that reads: “Mind that child.” Today, the warning seems a bit redundant. Here, outside London’s Natural History Museum, the third most popular museum in the country, there aren’t many children to mind. Nor are there many adults. Reports of it being a ghost town are a slight exaggeration, but for a sunny August morning in the middle of the school holidays, the museums of South Kensington are unnervingly quiet.
“The tourists are well down,” says Osborne, who has been selling ice cream for 40 years. “The families are well down. The takings are well down.” How much? “Fifty per cent. Easily.” You can see for yourself, he says. “I’m standing here, doing nothing, and it’s the middle of the tourist season.”
Osborne’s is a familiar complaint this week. In the build-up to the Olympics, Londoners were warned to expect an apocalypse of tourism – hour-long tube queues, traffic jams, sky-high rent hikes – but away from the quadruple sculls and the canoe slaloms, visitors have been thin on the ground.
According to trade association estimates, attendance at traditional tourist attractions this week is down by 30% on the same period last year, restaurants by 40%, and black cab usage by a similar figure. The royal palaces – the Tower of London and Hampton Court among them – have been particularly badly hit, attracting only half of last year’s visitor numbers. The British Museum has lost one in four visitors, the National Gallery two in five. And while the hotels in the east are doing well, the British Hospitality Association wrote to its members this week to warn them that London’s overall room occupancy in August might actually be lower than usual.
“It’s absolutely empty,” marvels Natasha Reynolds, sitting at the only occupied table in the cafe outside the Natural History Museum. A photographer from Essex, Reynolds arrived here on holiday with fellow metalhead Andy Bettony this morning. “We expected it to be absolutely rammed, but we’ve never seen it so quiet.” This time last year, says Reynolds, “it was packed. You had to queue all the way around the corner.” Today it’s not totally deserted, but you can stroll straight in. For the surest signs of life, you’d need to head for the gyrating model of something that’s been dead for 65m years: the Tyrannosaurus rex. A few metres away, there are some free-for-use ping-pong tables, but no one’s fighting over the bats and balls. Across the pedestrianised Exhibition Road, it’s just as quiet at the design-focused Victoria and Albert Museum, where attendance is down by around 10%. “It’s like Christmas Day,” says Reynolds. “I was shocked. I could actually sit down on the tube.”
It’s true. Both the roads and the underground are unexpectedly roomy. My cycle to South Kensington from Hackney, via a peaceful Hyde Park, would usually take 45 minutes in the morning rush hour. Today, I needed just 30. The only place where the going gets tough is near Park Lane, where the Olympic top brass are staying, and where the roads are clogged by their purple, chauffeur-driven cars. On the tube, passenger numbers are actually up by 275,000 – but around two-thirds of those newcomers are using the Docklands Light Railway around the Olympic stadia in east London, rather than the stations in the centre. Coupled with the increased number of tube trains, this means that the rise in passenger numbers is not felt outside of east London (though delays were again predicted for this weekend). From Kensington, I take the tube to Piccadilly Circus, where Nike has tagged a mirror with the slogan “Greatness looks like you”. The irony is, when I walk past, there are few people for the mirror to reflect. Greatness looks like no one.
When I emerge above ground again, the pavements are equally spare. The statue of Eros is usually smothered with tourists, but today it is only lightly coated. For once, the most conspicuous people aren’t the visitors but the extra policemen, and the volunteers dressed in the pink and purple colours of the games. Oh, and the chuggers. “Hello!” says one, 22-year-old Ismahan Mohamoud, who nabs me as I head towards to Leicester Square. Can we talk about the Red Cross? I forbid the subject, so we talk instead about tourism. “It’s not the London I expected,” she admits. “I thought it would be one big party.” Standing on the streets every day, she’s noticed that the number of foreign tourists probably hasn’t changed. Scared off by the warnings of transport armageddon, it’s the Londoners who have bunked off elsewhere.
It’s a popular theory. Back at the Natural History Museum, blue-haired Andy Bettony – whose job involves finding last-minute accommodation for tourists – expressed a similar sentiment. Trying to find tourists hotel rooms in east London, at least in late July, “was an absolute nightmare”. So perhaps the foreign tourists haven’t stopped coming, he says. “Maybe it’s the people who live in London who have left. It’s a mass exodus.”
Whatever’s happened, it has caught businesses off guard. At H&M on Oxford Street, management planned to bring in extra workers for the Olympic period, but have since had to cancel their shifts. Over lunch at Byron, a new burger chain, I hear the same thing. Come 1pm, some of the restaurants on the south side of (the delightfully renovated) Leicester Square are still empty. “We were not expecting this,” sighs Eugenia, the forlorn maître d’ at Pompidou, a self-styled cafe-patisserie cum creprie [sic]. “We were not expecting this at all.” Finally, a potential customer emerges. “Can I have something to eat?” asks a little voice at her elbow. It’s her daughter.
At the National Gallery, 200 metres away, attendance levels are down drastically – so I’m surprised, for once, to find queues. There’s a simple reason for this, though: for the duration of the Games, the gallery has installed airport-style security, complete with airport-style waiting times. Not the wisest move in a week when footfall is already low. Still, at least the galleries are refreshingly airy. For any sign of a rumpus, you’d have to make do with the subjects of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, which shows a bunch of rowdy deities emerging drunk from a forest. There’s one moment when, standing four or five rooms away, I have an unobstructed sightline on Holbein’s The Ambassadors. People can look at Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus without having to crane their necks.
On the other side of Trafalgar Square, a larger crowd is drifting towards Horse Guards Parade, where they will watch female volleyball players wearing only slightly more clothes than Velázquez’s naked subject. But though there is at least more bustle here than elsewhere, it doesn’t feel particularly unusual for the most famous square in London. The only thing out-of-the ordinary is the union flag fixed cheekily to Nelson’s hat, and the occasional roars from the makeshift stadium. The situation certainly doesn’t need half a dozen volunteers to marshal tourists across the traffic islands. You see these pink-vested teams at junctions across central London at the moment, and you wonder what their point is. They make me feel a bit like how I imagine a sprightly, if silver-haired, baby-boomer feels when someone offers them a seat on the bus. Touched, but patronised.
It seems others feel the same way, jaywalking without waiting for the pink vests’ say-so. “You must stop crossing, please!” flaps a helpless if humorous Arsalan Ahmad, pink-vest-in-chief. “Too dangerous! Very nasty!”
I cross the road, and head for Hungerford footbridge with its fine views of the river and east to the City, and the London Eye beyond. Again, the South Bank is bustling – three men breakdance to hiphop, drowning out the steel band 10 feet away – but no more than usual. Mihai, a mime artist with an act that looks like he’s levitating, says takings have either remained the same or fallen. Hayden Prosser, playing jazz on his double bass, hasn’t busked here much, but he’s disappointed with what he took home yesterday. The famous jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, where he also plays, is quieter still. Meanwhile, Ali Islak, selling ice cream next to the Eye, says revenues are down 35%. “And they said it would be up by 20!” As for the Eye itself, the queues are minimal. As I want to make the waxworks of Madame Tussauds before nightfall, I still ask for a fast-track ticket. The staff are incredulous. “Are you sure?” asks the woman on the desk. “The wait is only 10 minutes today.” How long is it normally? “One hour, two hours. The queue usually goes right down there,” she says, pointing towards the south pole. Half an hour later I am 40 metres in the air, staring down at County Hall and the brutalist Hayward gallery.
And so to Tussauds, where those in the know tell me there are “always” queues round the block. Well, not today. There’s only one person ahead of me at the counter, and that’s the actor Morgan Freeman – and on closer inspection, even he turns out to be a waxwork. Once inside the exhibit, things aren’t much busier. The first room is supposed to evoke an A-list Hollywood bash, but the vibe isn’t right. For a start, someone’s invited David Beckham. Even more problematically, the place just feels draughty. There are nearly as many waxworks as there are tourists. A Bavarian called Thomas Heidenreich stands next to Brad Pitt, and asks me to take their picture. Pitt is obliging, but tongue-tied – so I make small talk with Heidenreich. He came to London to watch the Olympics, he says, but apart from a tennis match earlier in the week, he has been unable to get tickets. There is no physical ticket office, he laments, and as he doesn’t own a Visa card he has found it hard to book anything over the internet. Instead, he’s ended up revisiting the same places he saw in 2009. Yesterday, parliament; today, Tussauds. And how long did you have to queue, I ask? Finally, he brightens. “In 2009, I queued for two or three hours to get here,” he smiles. “This year, two or three minutes!” Has there ever been a better time to be a tourist in London?