Beyond the pandemic: London bracing for slow tourism recovery

Plagues, fires, war — London has survived them all. But it has never had a year like this. The coronavirus has killed more than 15,000 Londoners and shaken the foundations of one of the world’s great cities.

After three national lockdowns, London’s tourist attractions and other hospitality businesses are making tentative plans to reopen in mid-May – the earliest the government says international travel can resume. But deep uncertainty about COVID-19 remains. With quarantine requirements and travel restrictions still in place everywhere and Europe battling a new surge of infections, many are bracing for another bleak year.

London’s tourism industry is facing a slower than expected recovery this year.Credit:Getty Images

For London’s tourism industry, which employs one in seven workers in the capital, the pandemic has been a body blow. With hotels, attractions and leisure shopping in a near-total shutdown, the industry’s contribution to London’s economy plunged from £15.7 billion ($28.5 billion) in 2019 to just £3 billion in the past year, according to VisitBritain, the national tourism agency.

Even national treasures like the Tower of London have struggled. Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that runs the Tower and other heritage attractions, has said it expected a £100 million-pound shortfall because of COVID-19.

Many expect a slow recovery, particularly because London always has been reliant on international tourism. Over half of all consumer spending in the West End — home to the city centre’s bustling shops, restaurants, pubs and theatres — typically comes from European and other overseas visitors.

In normal times, short-haul markets like European countries would generally be expected to recover faster than long-haul ones like the US and Asia. But with the threat of coronavirus variants in Europe and the slow vaccine rollout on the continent, experts say tourists are highly unlikely to return in earnest until the northern hemisphere autumn.

“We can see that other countries, particularly our European neighbours who tend to be the biggest markets for us, we can see them going into third waves of COVID,” said Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at VisitBritain. “There is pent-up demand, people do want to come to Britain. But at the moment, that simply isn’t possible.”

Nationally, officials forecast inbound tourism to generate just over 6 billion pounds ($8.2 billion) this year, compared with more than 28 billion pounds ($38 billion) in 2019. Heathrow Airport has said it does not expect passenger flows to return to 2019 levels until around 2024.

A key question for the recovery this year is whether cumbersome quarantine rules can be eased and replaced by an efficient system of vaccine certificates for travellers, Yates added.

Stuart Procter, who manages the luxury Stafford Hotel near central London’s St. James’s Palace, would usually go on marketing trips to America, his core market. This year, he hasn’t bothered.

For many, planning a vacation to London now is impossible because there’s no certainty that big events like the two-week Wimbledon tennis championships in July can go ahead normally, he said.

“They’re not coming. There’s no activities. … There’s nothing open for them to come to,” Procter said. “We’ve missed our cream, we missed our summer. I don’t think we’ll see any green shoots until the fourth quarter, if I’m honest.”

In the longer term, industry experts are confident that leisure travel will bounce back and tourists will return to London eventually. The big unknown, however, is whether business travel will ever be the same again.

“I think there’s much more of a question mark on business travel. And, of course, that affects the cities most,” said Yates of VisitBritain. “You know, those big four- or five-star hotels in London absolutely need business travellers coming back again.”

Some attractions, including the Tower of London, are planning to focus on domestic visitors to recoup some losses. Laura Citron, CEO of London & Partners, which promotes business and investment in the capital, said one strategy is to market this year as the golden opportunity for Britons to enjoy its top attractions without the usual crowds.

“We’re very much focused, certainly through the spring and the early summer, on Londoners and people from the rest of the UK rediscovering the city,” Citron said.

That may be easier said than done. When restrictions eased last summer, many Britons flocked to coastal and rural destinations. Surveys have showed many remain wary of visiting a big city and using mass transit. London has always been proud of its public transportation network and how few people drive into the city, but that strength has become a weakness in the pandemic.

Some Londoners out on a recent weekend say that while they’ve enjoyed having the city to themselves, they’re also keen to see it reopen to visitors soon.

“The usual tourist attractions, which are usually chock-a-block with people from outside of town, feel a little bit more accessible in a way that’s a bit unexpected,” said Ashleigh Muchatuta, 33.

“One of the things that makes London interesting is the fact it’s a melting pot, the variety of people that you can bump into and hear just walking through the city,” he added. “The things that attract people to the city are still going to be here and will outlast the pandemic, hopefully.”


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