A year ago we were lamenting their absence. But this year they returned with a vengeance – the tourists, that is, in all their multicoloured, multi-ethnic, multilingual, glory.
After a string of four-hour shifts as a London “ambassador” offering directions to visitors this summer – a spin-off from the 2012 Olympics volunteer scheme – I can report two discoveries. The first is that the road junction at Parliament Square by the Treasury must be one of the most dangerous in the capital and it is thanks only to the unsung forbearance of London’s bus drivers and cabbies that dozens are not mown down there every day.
The other is the contribution that tourism makes to the economy. The sheer numbers surging through this focal point of London – with the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey making up one of the most glorious architectural ensembles in the world – has to be seen, and felt, to be believed.
The variety of shapes, sizes and languages is bewildering. There are times when the whole future of China seems to have come to stay – endless crocodiles of disconcertingly chubby and self-confident youngsters in yellow and red T-shirts. But if you try to guess where people come from, you risk getting it very wrong. A trio at the extreme end of punk and goth turned out to be German, with barely a word of English between them. Not all lithe and stylish women are French; not all the grossly overweight are American.
Many have studied their destination and plotted their stay as minutely as an army cadet on a field exercise. Some are weighed down by a veritable library; others are minimalists, relying on sleek gadgets – but both are equally liable to come a cropper if they are reading their map the wrong way round.
Good manners abounded. I encountered a few whiny, snatchy children, but not nearly as many as you would find in the average supermarket, and a Russian family yelling about how they needed a taxi now. Mostly, though, pleases, thank-yous and smiles predominated. Despite the crowds, the dearth of public toilets and the prices, London’s tourists came across as an overwhelmingly cheerful lot. In fact, I would put it more forcefully: they are little short of heroic.
I dread to think how many photos of “that’s us, in front of Big Ben” will be shown off this autumn, but from the open-top tour buses to the red buses, to the Tube, they were completely up for it.
Who says today’s tourists are lazy? Time and again I was asked how to get to St Paul’s, the Tower, or “the shops”, and when I started to list the possibilities, the questioners beamed, shook their heads and made little walking imitations with their fingers. When I then told them, gently, how long it would take, they beamed again and said, “Fine”. A young British couple said, scornfully, that, as northerners, they had no problem with a long walk. Nor, I think, need we be too worried about civic education. I overheard some admirable explanations of the Cenotaph, of Parliament, and of Churchill from your average mum and dad.
Another surprise, given the cynicism about politics, was the attraction of Downing Street. Of all the destinations I was asked for, it easily came out top. But it’s woefully underpromoted. How about a cardboard Cameron to pose beside, a souvenir stall, even a prime-ministerial appearance?
We could even make a feature of that lethal road junction. Given that everyone prefers a direct route and barriers would spoil the view, I suggest a sign saying “Very Dangerous Crossing” and inviting visitors to take their chance. Not that London’s tourists need any more challenges. In my book, they’ve already won gold medals for cheerfulness, determination, and services to the UK economy.