Millennium bid to lure world's high rollers to 'Las Vegas-on-Thames'

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The Independent Online
The forthcoming Millennium exhibition is sparking a huge hotel boom in London. More than 50 hotels are being built across the capital as operators predict that tourists will flock in to celebrate the year 2000. Many are being planned along the Thames. Kay Dymock, a hotel expert with the property adviser Jones Lang Wootton, estimates that about 6,000 rooms with a river view will be built.

Four new hotels are already proposed for Greenwich, with operators keen to benefit from the visitors expected to attend the Millennium celebrations on the site of the meridian line.

Hoteliers have also spotted opportunities close to new attractions on the South Bank, including the extension of the Tate Gallery, the new Globe Theatre and the aquarium about to be opened at County Hall, the former HQ of the Greater London Council. Part of County Hall will also be converted into a hotel.

Docklands could well become London's Las Vegas on the water. The area was identified in a recent government consultation paper as suitable for new casinos, and operators are already looking for sites for hotel and gambling complexes.

The London Docklands Development Corporation has already given planning permission for one casino and hotel at South Quay, scene of last year's IRA lorry-bomb explosion.

Roger Squire, LDDC chief executive, said: "We are happy to have casinos here. There are plenty of areas where they could be built without disturbing any residents and they would help attract more tourists to the area."

Planning applications have been submitted to the LDDC for four other hotels; one, for a five-star hotel at Canary Wharf, is by the Ongs, the Singaporean couple behind many of Bond Street's best-known shops and the Metropolitan hotel, which recently opened in central London.

The rush to build hotels follows reports to the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourist Board that London is struggling to cope with the number of tourists flocking to the capital.

David Bailey of the London First campaign group said: "The recession and the Gulf War stopped people visiting, but have been coming back.

"We estimated that London would need an extra 10,000 beds by the Millennium. Now it looks as if that is going to happen."

Demand is dominated by two types of visitor: one who wants the ultimate in luxury, the other looking for bargain prices. In the past year, several luxury "designer" hotels have opened, including Christina Ong's Metropolitan and Anouska Hempel's second hotel, The Hempel, in Bayswater, where a room in the cool, minimalist premises costs pounds 230. But the main problem for all hoteliers is the shortage of sites in the most popular neighbourhoods for tourists. Hotels generate lots of traffic and local residents often object to more of them being built.

So hoteliers are having to look outside the traditional areas, even for luxury premises. In Holborn, the former Pearl Assurance building is being converted into a five-star hotel, while the Regent Plaza, London's newest four-star, has been built in unfashionable Kilburn. "Aparthotels", more akin to flats than conventional hotels, are also planned for the capital.