Empty capital tells the world: we're still open for business

With tourists and locals staying away for fear of Games-related chaos, London's West End is counting the cost of Olympic fever

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The Independent Online

London's West End is one of the most famous areas for shopping, dining and entertainment in any city in the world.

While business is booming just across town in Stratford, though, the Olympic effect is causing worry in the centre of the capital: theatres, shops and bars all say that trade has dramatically fallen because scare-mongering about transport difficulties has driven away tourists as well as locals.

Shopping footfall dropped about 11 per cent last Friday and Saturday, restaurants complain that turnover is down by up to 60 per cent and box-office takings are expected to fall by a third at some theatre groups.

Repeated official warnings of chaos in the city centre and hotels hiking their rates are being blamed for deterring people from visiting London.

The West End's travails will be embarrassing for the London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has recorded personal messages for buses urging people to be careful about travelling in London.

The Prime Minister has claimed that the Games could boost British trade by £13bn in the long term, and the Treasury hopes the current quarter's growth figures will receive an Olympic fillip.

The Games were predicted to bring in vast numbers of visitors, but while 100,000 people have arrived from overseas, that is just a third of the 300,000 expected in a typical year.

Some shops and restaurants in Soho were unusually quiet yesterday.

Ned Clark, 27, who runs The Bratwurst food shop, said: "People seem to have stayed away because they expect it to be busy. We have had a really quiet week so far and the weekend was the same."

"We know the tourists will be spending a lot of their time in the Olympic Park but there will be days when they don't have tickets for anything and we thought they might be tempted to come into the West End."

At the Raj Tandoori restaurant, the owner Abu Khalique, 53, said: "Even our regular customers have stopped coming. We thought it would be a very busy period: we ordered extra stock, we cancelled all holiday. I am just hoping that people will realise it is not as crowded as they thought."

The normally packed Arbutus restaurant in Soho had just 20 customers for lunch. Its sister restaurant Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden had its quietest weekend on record.

The Earl of Bradford, owner of Porters restaurant in Covent Garden, said his takings had been just £1,600 last Friday, down by more than £4,000 on the same day last year. "This is nothing short of disastrous. We have been concerned about the Olympics for some time but the reality is even worse than we thought – Covent Garden is so quiet, when it is normally humming with activity."

Traders attributed the quiet to office workers staying at home and Olympics visitors not venturing far beyond Stratford .

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which represents London's museums and tourist attractions, reported a fall of 30 per cent in attendance over the past two weeks compared with last year.

Nick Palan, managing director for an open-top tour bus company, Golden Tours, said: "It has totally destroyed the market for us this summer."

Meanwhile, Westfield in Stratford – the gateway to the Olympic Park – is buzzing, with most describing their shops and restaurants as "manic".

Theatregoers could find that impresarios' misfortune leads to their gain, as box offices begin to offer discounts to get people through the doors. Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax Theatres, which includes the Apollo, Lyric and the Garrick in London, said: "We will do anything to sell tickets. This is a chance for people to pick up top-price tickets much more cheaply."

Ms Burns insisted that, overall, the Games were worth it. "The Olympics has been great for the spirit of the country and very unifying," she said.

She added that she expected sales to be 20 per cent lower than the same period last year, "and, if it doesn't pick up, it will be as much as 30 per cent".

"I have no idea why everyone's so surprised about the West End losing out . We wanted everyone to be riveted to this great sporting show in east London, and they are."

Mark Rubinstein, president of the Society of London Theatre, said it was not all doom and gloom. "There is a really mixed picture. Some of the bigger shows are doing well; others are finding it more challenging. The message about transport has scared people away," he said.

A year ago The Independent made a booking for the DoubleTree by Hilton in Holborn, central London, for August 2012. The rate was £450 per night. Over the next two weeks, the maximum rate for the hotel is less than half as much, with £224 at the highest and £170 at the lowest. These rates are about the same as for corresponding dates last August.

Evidence from previous Olympiads, notably in Athens and Sydney, predicts exactly the outcome that London is experiencing: despite initial optimism, there is a sharp fall in total visitors – and, with the exception of hotels block-booked by organisers, a profusion of empty beds and rates below those of a normal summer.

James Hughes, 28, who was returning to his office from a sandwich shop near Piccadilly Circus in Soho, said "I have found the West End quite quiet this week. We were prepared for meltdown, which doesn't seem to have happened. I am not surprised because there were so many warnings in the run-up to the Games."

Empty London in numbers

The number of people going to stores on Friday ahead of the opening ceremony was 10.4 per cent lower than a year ago, said research group Experian.

It added that customer footfall levels were 11.7 per cent down on Saturday, when the men's cycling road race started and finished on The Mall in central London.

Some central London restaurants have complained that turnover is down by up to 60 per cent.