London’s small businesses: Where are all the Olympic tourists?

A street in the the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is nearly empty midday.

At lunch hour,  the award-winning Masala curry house sits empty. In fact, most of the 60 eateries on London’s historic Brick Lane, a typically popular tourist attraction, are ghost towns.

It’s the same story for countless businesses across the U.K. that are unlucky enough to be located some distance from Olympic Park. The hope had been an economic boom of epic proportions brought to London by the 2012 Olympics, but the effect has yet to be felt, according to some business owners.

“We are still waiting,” Masala’s owner, Guljar Khan, told Metro. His curry’s awards are proudly displayed on the front of the restaurant, but they’ve done little to attract crowds, even though curry has arguably replaced fish and chips as Britain’s national dish. In fact, sales are worse this summer than last summer.

“Athens had the same problem eight years ago, and I don’t think they picked up, but we are hoping we can get more customers in the doors here,” he said.

More than £11 billion (about $17 billion) was invested for improving the city’s transportation, adding hotel rooms and building new retail spaces before an estimated 2.2 million visitors arrived, according to a report by Visit London.  With that investment, came looming warnings for locals to steer clear of public transportation, brace for nightmarish traffic and work from home — or get out of London all together.

Meanwhile, those 2.2 million visitors who have brought with them money to spend in London, are typically lingering near Olympic Park. The Westfield shopping center attached to the Stratford tube station, where spectators exit for the park, is packed with tourists at any given time – a stark contrast for small businesses across London.

“We have two weeks of the games and business is probably a little bit quieter than expected,” Robert Williams, spokesman for the London borough of Tower Hamlets, told Metro. “I’m not personally convinced that talk of the legacy of £19 billion boost to the economy was ever entirely accurate, but I don’t think it should be measured in two weeks.”

Tourism officials like Visit Britain’s CEO Sandie Dawe, are holding out hope that the Olympics will serve as a jumping-off point for attracting more tourists in the future, especially Americans who are, by far, the biggest spenders in the U.K.

“We’re looking at [the Olympics] as a huge advertisement for London and Britain,” Dawe said. “In the longer term, we hope to build tourism to Britain on the back of that, whether it’s from new emerging tourism in markets such as China, India and Brazil, or our strong markets, such as the U.S.”

Along with a hefty investment, London has enlisted the help of 70,000 volunteers, stationed at street corners and outside tube stations, offering directions, maps or suggestions. Those extra touches have proven key among American visitors who spoke with Metro.

“The organization has been the best we’ve ever seen and this is our eighth Olympics,” Paul Schultz, who is here from Houston with his wife, told Metro. “I’ve never seen lines so short and people so friendly. I can’t imagine any American who can afford to come here not making the trip.”

“Everybody is very polite,” Peter Brown of Denver said. “I haven’t had a cross word from anybody. The food is a little different, but it’s still delicious.”

“It’s been the trip of a lifetime,” Cheryl Van De Voorde, of Illinois, added.

That’s exactly the impression city officials sought to create for Americans through years of planning and prep. While the immediate impact continues to disappoint small business owners in many areas of London, tourism professionals are confident the dollars will roll in — if not now, then later.

“I hope what this awareness boost does is to show Americans that there is more to Britain than just Big Ben and the Tower of London, and that it’s definitely time to come and re-explore London,” Dawe said.

(All photos by Cassandra Garrison/Metro)

Masala restaurant on Brick Lane is nearly empty as London hosts the 2012 Olympics:

The award-winning chicken jalfrezi that few visitors are sampling:

Thousands of Olympic tourists swarm the shopping mall attached to the tube station nearest to Olympic Park:



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