London to rebuild its tourism empire

What London’s tourism offers is overpriced, shabby and poorly co-ordinated, according to prospective candidate for mayor and MP for Brent East Ken Livingstone.

His comments come as the London Tourist Board (LTB) puts together a £10m international ad campaign through M&C Saatchi to position the capital as “the Millennium City” (MW June 3), a must for visitors next year and for the first decade of the next century.

Livingstone believes that for many visitors, London is a disappointment. He says that the capital has been neglected and has become too reliant on its past glories.

This has not deterred the LTB from talking to partners including American Express, British Airways and hoteliers Millennium & Copthorne to raise funds for the campaign, which is scheduled to break in overseas and domestic markets this autumn.

Essential to the campaign will be the promotion of the £6bn-worth of projects under construction, including the £758m Millennium Dome and the 135 metres high British Airways London Eye ferris wheel. By publicising these projects the LTB is hoping to persuade an extra 4 million people to visit London in 2000, bringing the annual total to 30 million.

London Tourist Board managing director Paul Hopper says: “What is happening in London now is comparable to what Mitterand was doing in Paris a decade ago, only London is doing it better.”

But Livingstone says: “The deal that’s offered to tourists is pretty shabby and over-priced. We rely too heavily on older attractions such as Madam Tussauds, and these will not last indefinitely. The problem is that we don’t really have a definite tourism strategy. As a result we’re falling behind the rest of the world.”

Livingstone maintains that London should be constructing what he describes as world-class attractions, and his pet project is to build an aquarium in the London borough of Newham, which would be ten times the size of the London Aquarium on the South Bank.

His view that London is falling behind other European cities is echoed by Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley Tourist Board chief executive Eddie Friel. Friel believes that London has been hampered by not having a mayor, and that in terms of its international image, the UK capital is being squeezed out by Paris, which has overtaken London as the perceived capital of Europe.

He adds that London faces increasing pressure from the emerging markets with arrivistes such as Prague, St Petersburg and Leipzig appearing as new and vibrant competitors.

“Most major world cities have a mayor and London has suffered from not having one. To bring it back to scratch would need investment in its infrastructure and facilities. Tourism doesn’t operate in isolation. And now we are competing with Eastern Europe, the standard milk round of London/Paris/ Rome doesn’t exist any more, so there is even greater pressure.”

Ironically, the arrival of the mayor next year, while widely interpreted as a positive move, has held up the decision-making process. Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, another contender for the mayor of London, says: “There is this idea that everything is on hold until the mayor comes in. I believe that the London Tourist Board is doing a very good job but it does not receive enough of the money that is spent in London. It horrifies me that Paris attracts more visitors than London.”

The London Tourist Board dismisses suggestions that the city is looking shabby. LTB’s Hopper maintains that it is taking advantage of its Nineties reputation as the capital of cool.

“London clearly does have increasing competition,” says Hopper. “But I don’t think we’ve fallen behind, London is on a roll. The millennium coincides with a number of other projects, such as Lottery buildings and the launch of infrastructure projects like Heathrow Express.”

The £6bn worth of tourism and leisure projects will bring a swathe of new architecture to the capital. The flagship project is the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, but other projects include the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art on the South Bank, the London Eye ferris wheel, the Millennium Bridge (designed by Sir Norman Foster) and the redeveloped Royal Opera House, which is scheduled to open in December.

However, if the M&C Saatchi campaign is successful in attracting 30 million tourists to London through promoting these new attractions, some wonder whether the creaking capital will be able to cope. Capacity in London is already over-stretched, and if there is a 4 million increase in the number of tourists coming into the city, this could drive up prices and lead to a scramble for available accommodation.

BDO Hospitality Consulting associate director David Bailey says: “Room occupancy for London has been at about 81 per cent, and it’s reasonable to assume that for much of the year the hotels run at 100 per cent capacity. Next year occupancy is expected to reach 84 per cent because of the millennium. The result of this is that visitors are likely to move further out and to places where there are good transport links to the centre.”

LTB’s Hopper concedes: “There is a capacity issue which has to be managed. Capacity will increasingly move into areas away from the city centre, which will help spread the benefits of tourism to local areas.” Welcome to sunny Tooting, Lewisham and Walthamstow.

Spreading capacity and the benefits of tourism will be an issue next year for the London mayor, who will to a large extent determine London’s place on the international tourism map. Friel says the mayor will need a long-term vision to bolster the capital’s image.

“The first thing the mayor needs to do is refine the current strategy. What is needed is a view of where London will be in 2020,” he says.

Such a long-term vision is very rare in the short-term world of politics. London’s tourism industry will be praying that the next mayor of London can look beyond a four-year term.

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