THE ROYAL WEDDING: BETTER THAN THE OLYMPICS FOR UK TOURISM?

First, there were the congratulations, photo- sessions and somewhat obsequious mini-documentaries about “Wills & Kate” (or Catherine, as we now have to call her). That lasted for about a day. The  media then promptly switched its attention to how much the nation could make financially from next year’s nuptials. In an era of  budget deficits and public spending cuts, pecuniary considerations (so it appears) have displaced romance. The “Sun” newspaper triumphantly declared that the marriage celebrations “will give a £1 billion boost to the Britain’s hard-pressed economy”. Income from tourism “will soar by £750 million as royal fans worldwide flock here hoping for a glimpse of the happy couple”. Both the Sun and the “London Evening Standard” referred to the prediction by Neil Saunders of  research consultants “Verdict” that sales of food and drink will exceed £360 million and that souvenir merchandising could “rake in” another £26 million. The Guardian reported that a range of commemorative crockery – such as Aynsley plates (£39.95p each) and “two-handled loving cups” (£32.95p each) – will be on sale by Christmas, and that the country’s retailers are “all aflutter” at the commercial potential of the great event. According to the “Glorious Britain” shop at Gatwick Airport, there has already been a rush of passengers wanting to purchase royal wedding souvenirs  before boarding their flights. The UK press has noted approvingly that Prince Charles will probably fund most of the wedding bill ( with assets from his Duchy of Cornwall estate), though this won’t include security costs (estimated at £40 million compared to £4 million for Charles & Diana in 1981). Kate’s parents “will offer to pay for the wedding dress or the honeymoon”. David Cottle, a Dow Jones Newswires columnist, has depicted the occasion as a “big,much-needed money- spinner for a Britain in trouble”.

The most significant aspect of the royal wedding, however, is likely to be the “huge numbers” that will be attracted to the capital – especially (says “The Sun”) from America ,Canada, China, Russia  and India”. Which is probably rather fortuitious in view of the disagreements which have surfaced regarding the likely attendance at the 2012 Olympics. This had (until the engagement announcement) been portrayed as London’s next available “tourist boom” opportunity. Lord Coe, Chairman of the Organising Committee foresees a possible one million  additional foreign visitors (up to 350,000 per day) coming to the UK for the Games. An analysis prepared by the ‘Oxford Economics’ company for the VisitBritain and Visit London organizations calculated that the Olympics (“if there is good planning”) could generate tourism gains of £2.09 billion for the period 2007-17, including £1.47 billion for London.  A VisitBritain survey indicated that 22% of people worldwide said they would be more inclined to visit the UK because of the Olympics – but also that the percentage would be even higher for some countries: India (44%), China (39%), Mexico (53%),Malaysia (43%) and Indonesia (49%). Furthermore, they forecast that tourist arrivals will increase thereafter and the legacy effect – thanks to the media exposure and accompanying publicity – could last for decades.

Such claims tend to be greeted with scepticism by commentators such as Robert Barney, Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies, University of Western Ontario: He has stated that “There has never been an Olympic Games that has made a profit” and concluded that  “If making money were an Olympic event, no city hosting the Games would win a gold medal. Or Silver. Or Bronze”. His compatriot Andrew Rose, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of a study on “The Olympic Effect”, concurs : “No reasonable person thinks that the direct benefits of hosting the Olympic Games or any other mega event cover the expenses”. Meanwhile, the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) is equally unequivocal. In its recently published “Olympic Report”, it insists that there is no strong link between hosting sporting tournaments and increased tourism: “ The audiences regularly cited for such events as the Olympics are exaggerated. Attendees at the Games displace normal visitors and scare tourists away for some time”. ETOA’s outspoken Executive Chairman,Tom Jenkins, pursued this theme at a World Travel Market (WTM) seminar entitled “Sports Tourism: Its A Tough Game – But Some Win”, in London’s Excel Conference Centre on November 8th. He warned his listeners that tourism was not a good reason for holding the Olympics and that host nations invariably miscalculated how many people would actually turn up. Beijing, for example, had expècted 400,000 foreign guests in 2008 but received only 235,000 for the whole month of August; In Sydney (2000), the total was 97,000 instead of 132,000; Athens (2004) had hoped for 105,000 people per night but got fewer than 14,000. The principal danger, suggested Jenkins, was “between perception and reality”.  He also queried as to exactly where the supposed 380,000 international visitors in 2012 (if they materialized) would be accommodated: “Currently there are only 122,000 hotel beds in and around London” – which of course could now also prove to be a major issue if there is a massive influx from abroad for the Royal Wedding.

Prior to WTM, a brief survey of 200 leading tour operators was conducted by ETOA. This revealed that 68% of those questioned in London expected an “Olympic slump,” with their turnover falling by around 30%. In the case of regional England, 60% feared an average decline of 17% – supporting the ETOA view that “The problem s not restricted to the host city. If you remove London from a visit to the British Isles, everywhere else become far more difficult to sell”. In its “Olympic Report”, ETOA asserts controversially that during the Games, the venue effectively closes for business: “The absence of tourists consequently breaks the normal conveyor belt of contented customers begetting new arrivals”. This contention has been dismissed as “ A weary old story” by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Their riposte to ETOA is that “The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are a long-term investment in the future of Britain’s visitor economy” as well as regenerating deprived areas of East London and providing the people living there with “state-of-the art” sporting facilities once the Games are over. All the same, it may not be totally unwelcome to the Olympics Organizing Committee that public and media interest is now for the moment firmly focused on 2011.

COLIN GORDON

Filed under: Society | Posted on November 23rd, 2010 by Colin D Gordon

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