Tourists are steering clear of London because of the Olympic "upheaval", the Culture Secretary has admitted. But the Government is refusing to downgrade David Cameron's prediction that the Games will provide a £13bn boost for the UK economy.
West End retailers, theatres and restaurants say warnings of transport chaos have deterred tourists and locals, turning London into a "ghost town". Jeremy Hunt said he was now expecting "just under 750,000 additional visitors" during the six weeks spanning the Olympics and Paralympics.
Some potential visitors have been put off, the minister responsible for tourism acknowledged. "There are [far] fewer European tour groups, probably accentuated by the Euro crisis," Mr Hunt said. "Some tourist groups stay away from an Olympic host city because the logistics are so much harder. On the other hand we get a lot of new visitors who come to spend money in different ways."
Mr Hunt's department has put together what he calls "the biggest ever tourism marketing campaign". "Our target is an additional 4.5 million visitors in four years," he said.
He said he was not disappointed by reports of empty streets and a dramatic fall in trade since the Games began. "It is very difficult to predict what will actually happen to consumer spending in one part of London during something like an Olympic games because the upheaval is so huge. We are hoping to come away net positive in terms of the overall period of the Games but we don't know."
The warnings on trains and buses, urging travellers to take care during the Games, may have reduced the numbers on the streets. Figures released yesterday by Locog suggested that nearly one in five motorists had abandoned the roads, with the overall flow of vehicles falling by 17 per cent since the Games began. Record numbers of travellers are now using the Docklands Light Railway, which services Games sites including the Olympic Park in Stratford and Greenwich Park, which is hosting the equestrian events.
Mr Hunt said: "We have been putting a strong message out to Londoners to try and ease the pressure on the transport system. There's a lot of people working from home. The result is, contrary to expectations, the transport system has held up extremely well and we are able to get people to and from the Olympic venues."
He urged critics to "take a bigger view on this. What the Olympics is doing is cementing London's reputation as one of the great cities. What we are confident of is that following the Games, as a result of the large boost to Britain's reputation, there will be huge benefit to West End retailers, theatres, London's restaurants and hotels. It will be as brilliant for London's reputation as Barcelona and Sydney were for their cities."
Speaking during a business summit, held at Lancaster House in St James's, designed to drum up business for Britain's creative industries, Mr Hunt said the Government was determined to maximise the economic potential of the Games. UKTI [the UK Trade & Investment quango] is hoping for £1bn of deals signed during the Olympics," he said. "We're still at the start so it's too early to point to any individual deals. We are very confident that on the back of the Games we will sign a significant number of new contracts."