When Sebastian Coe, London bid chief and double Olympic winner, said last week, “We are taking home the biggest prize in sport,” he might with equal truth have added “and the biggest prize in tourism too”.
For, leaving aside economically transformative investment in construction, transport and no doubt Lea Valley buy-to-lets, the staging of the 2012 London Olympics will surely prove an irresistible magnet for currency-bearing foreign tourists.
Tourism is already one of the UK’s biggest industries, accounting for seven per cent of its workforce and just shy of &£74bn a year in revenue – of which about &£13bn comes from international visitors. On the back of the win, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is already pencilling in &£100bn of revenue by 2010, in the confident expectation of a turbo surge accompanying the games themselves.
We have already seen one kind of unpredictable event capable of denting these sanguine expectations. Though the toll of human misery, bad as it was, could have been much greater; and the resilience of Londoners was heart-warming (not least to shopkeepers, who saw their sales rapidly bounce back), the longer-term effects of the terrorist attacks are hard to fathom. Noting perhaps that the fallout had been nowhere near as bad as September 11 nor the Madrid massacre last year, a crisis committee convened by the World Travel Tourism Council has tentatively concluded that visitor arrivals in the UK will only be two per cent down on its previous forecast of 31 million for 2005.
Neither the committee, nor anyone else for that matter, can be sure of course. High morale sends out a positive message to would-be tourists; moreover Hotelbenchmark figures demonstrate that each successive terrorist attack has been met with a diminished recovery time. The imponderable short-term issue is the attitude of US tourists, whose resolve will not have been strengthened by an edict (now hastily withdrawn) to US military forces stationed in the UK not to visit London.
The imponderable long-term issue is that this attack was clearly strategic, in being centred, for the first time, on a particular event. If the G8 summit in 2005, then why not the Olympic Games in 2012?
But seven years is an awfully long time, and during that period the marketing stars of the bid team, now reconstituted as Locog (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games), will face a variety of factors other than security affecting the eventual popularity of the games. What they have achieved, however heroically, was a sprint; what they face now is a marathon.
One task they may wish to address urgently is the explicit extent of government interference, so that we avoid the Dome fiasco writ on a larger scale. Already it is tinkering with an Olympics bill, one of whose provisions will be an absurdly draconian crackdown on any form of guerrilla marketing. All to the good you may say, but not if the “good” amounts to preventing a shop assistant from selling a pair of Nike trainers for fear of “associating” them with the Olympics; or to pubs banned from advertising the games being screened on television inside. That way, only resentment lies.