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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition