Simon Calder: Taking a gamble on London's tourist industry

The man who pays his way

Black holes do not yet figure on the tourism agenda. Until they do, here's how to simulate the concept of time slowing almost to a standstill: join a Post Office queue in order to renew a passport or a driving licence.

To fill any resulting gaps in the space-time continuum when you enter this parallel universe, you can always strike up a conversation with fellow travellers. Last Saturday morning the man behind me whispered "Masked Marvel". Unsure whether that was a compliment, a threat or a request, I asked for more details.

"St Leger, this afternoon. I got 16 to 1 on him a month ago. You'll still get him at sixes or eights."

When I had concluded my bureaucratic business, a couple of hours in earth time still remained before the 3.10pm off at Doncaster racecourse. At William Hill, three doors down, my £10 each way on Masked Marvel at 7-1 was welcomed.

The only people who I have encountered this week taking no financial risk are the gentlemen operating the swindle known variously as the "Shell Game" or "Follow the Bee" on Westminster Bridge in central London. On Monday evening, I spent an hour watching the frenzy of commerce on this most significant link across the Thames.

Earth, concluded William Wordsworth, "hath not anything to show more fair" than the view from Westminster Bridge. In the 209 years since then, the experience has changed: from human statues to hot dogs that constitute a biological hazard, all commerce is here. The footfall is unmatched in the nation: the bridge connects Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament with the London Eye, making it Britain's busiest tourist thoroughfare. With Parliament and Whitehall so close, it is also one of the most heavily policed locations in Britain. Puzzling, then, that the gangs who prey on tourists on Westminster Bridge can operate with the presumed tacit approval of the authorities.

Between 5 and 6pm on Monday, four separate "games" were going on. This is not your average casino. The dealer squats with his back to the bridge, with three matchboxes laid out on a doormat. He keeps up a patter while shuffling them, occasionally lifting one to show where a small wooden ball is located. An accomplice stimulates interest – and greed – among passers-by using the old trick of apparently winning money. Most tourists walk past, but a few pause and watch. After a few minutes, they convince themselves that they, too, can follow the game and beat the dealer, and buy into the action.

The only denomination that appeared while I watched was the £20 note. A typical victim, or "mark" quickly loses £40 or £60, and then is invited by the dealer to win back their money by deciding between only two boxes, not three. They lose again, and are usually last seen being dragged away by a furious partner who has just watched a large slab of their holiday spending disappear into a black hole.

The operators of this extreme end of the tourist economy must be delighted that the authorities show no interest in stifling the practice. Villains across Europe are no doubt getting in training for next summer's Olympics. But for the UK tourist industry, the proliferation of swindles is serious: besides the shabby image it confers on Britain, the thousands of pounds that the tricksters pocket might otherwise be spent in restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions, with a better rate of return.

Back at Doncaster, Masked Marvel romped home by three lengths. In future I shall brook no comparison of the South Yorkshire town to a gravitational singularity with infinite density.

Better late?

Aviation has always been a bit of a lottery – and now the Latvian airline, Air Baltic, has introduced a casino element into its flights. Nothing to do with the probability of your successfully travelling between Gatwick and Riga, but the time your flight arrives.

This enterprising airline has come up with a new way to make money from travellers: betting on the flight being delayed, with what it ambitiously describes as an "On-time Arrival Guarantee".

Pay €24, and if the flight arrives an hour or more late, you get your money back. A good plan? Not unless you have paid a fortune for your flight. On average, one flight in five is more than 15 minutes late, but typically at least half of those flights are delayed by less than an hour – making the odds against any particular flight meeting the criterion around 10 to 1. If you have paid, say, €240 for your trip and fancy a flutter, the odds are about right. Good luck: just don't try any tricks such as dawdling in duty free to delay the flight.

travel@independent.co.uk

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there