Kate Simon: How we respond to the riots could affect future tourism

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Assessing the dangers of one country over another has become a preoccupation of the modern-day traveller. There's no question that some places on the world map would turn anyone off – a city break in Kabul is unlikely to appeal at the moment.

But until recently, suggest that London might be up there as worthy of a risk assessment – thanks largely to the backlash against Britain's forays beyond its borders – and you'd usually be met with a hesitant yet cynical smile.

Might this month's riots make people think again? Certainly, it's provoking debate on the other side of the world, if an article I was reading in the Sydney Morning Herald is anything to go by. "London Calling? Not to us, not any more" read a headline on its website, the subsequent piece asking if this was the beginning of the end of the love affair between Australians and "Old Dart".

"London's not the safe haven it once was," asserted the author. "There's even rioting in Clapham!" Would backpackers now forgo the convenience of a common language for the streets of other European cities, such as Berlin or Stockholm, he asked? What about giving Britain the swerve and heading for reassuring old Canada instead?

To be honest, the article revealed little understanding of Britain's centuries-old tempestuous history of social tension. A more informed report was offered by the Middle East-based broadcaster al-Jazeera. It considered how spring's royal wedding had boosted bookings from foreign holidaymakers, while summer's riots were causing governments to tell their citizens visiting Britain to be cautious, and, in South Africa's case, advising against all non-essential travel here. (Who can blame the South Africans for having a pop – after years on the receiving end of bad press about safety in their cities.)

Pity the nervous international traveller, switching tickets last minute for a less complex choice of destination, especially when news reports seem to suggest that the whole of the UK has been set alight. Alex Salmond, for one, was quick to chastise media talking of "UK riots", pointing out that none had taken place in Scotland.

To suggest Britain is a no-go area is nonsense, a fact no one seems to be more sure of than the country's tourism chiefs. Fearful of the negative effect of the riots on the 2012 Olympics, tourism leaders are observing a three-line whip, explaining, in calm voices, that even at the height of the unrest cancellations by visitors were minimal and the riots will soon be shaken off by resilient old London.

They hope. But who can predict whether there will be more riots before the opening ceremony. Tough talk instead of proper analysis of why the riots happened might enforce the peace in the short term, but could it breed further disaffection and make London a more dangerous place in the future for visitors as well as residents?


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