The British tourist industry was left reeling last week as London’s delight at securing the 2012 Olympic Games evaporated in the wake of Thursday’s terror attacks.
Instead of rejoicing, the industry faces having to mount a campaign to persuade visitors that the country and its capital are safe places to visit.
VisitLondon, the capital’s tourist board, is already talking to hoteliers, airlines, retailers, theatres and tourist attractions about formulating a marketing strategy to woo back visitors to the capital.
Communications director Ken Kelling says the organisation is assessing the situation day by day, and he is optimistic: “If there is a parallel, it would be Madrid rather than New York. They experienced a two- to three-week drop in visitor numbers, but ended up having a record year.”
However, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the bombings will result in a 1.9 per cent annual decline in the number of visitors to the UK in 2005, equivalent to 588,000 fewer people.
The British Hospitality Association has already reported a significant number of hotel cancellations in London over the weekend. Chief executive Bob Cotton says he would like to see a government agency-led campaign over the next few weeks to reassure domestic and overseas visitors.
He adds that the UK’s brand has withstood previous security alerts and events such as the foot and mouth outbreak, and is confident the industry can bounce back.
“We are not seeing evidence of people changing their long-term plans,” he says.
Other observers, looking at the effect of the 2004 attacks in Madrid and the reaction of the stock market and Londoners in general, say the “hit” could be largely short-term.
Companies such as British Airways saw their share prices drop by up to nine per cent after the attacks, but by Friday they had recovered. BA says it has not been badly affected in terms of passengers cancelling flights, but the airline is understood to have loosened its fare policies to allow travellers to change their tickets if they are reluctant to fly.
Analysts say that although there will be some impact on tourism, the reaction of Londoners and the response of the emergency services have helped the UK’s image.
PricewaterhouseCoopers’ travel group director Mark Bedlow says: “The overwhelming picture was how unflappable people were. That will affect views. There’s no need to reach for the panic button.”
Deloitte global head of tourism, hospitality and leisure Alex Kyriakidis says the way London coped on Thursday was “encouraging for the tourism industry”.
He says the recovery time after terror attacks is getting shorter. Hotelbenchmark figures show it took the industry 18 months to recover after September 11, whereas post-Madrid it took six months.
Kyriakidis suggests there will be a short-term reduction in the number of visitors from Europe, but adds: “US inbound tourist numbers may take longer to recover.”
One airline analyst says that after the Madrid bombings, low-cost carriers were briefly affected and the Spanish carrier Iberia had “a wobble”, although its operating profit rose by 30 per cent over the year.
But he too is concerned about the impact on US visits to the UK, which have only recently recovered to their 2001 levels.
“I don’t think the numbers will drop off a cliff, but I would imagine that there would be a decline in bookings,” he says.
In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s outrage it seems that for the moment, the best advertisement for London is the attitude of Londoners themselves.