Britain's hope for a royal-wedding tourist boom fizzles

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Blanket television coverage. Recent airport strikes here. A strong pound sterling until recently. And perhaps recent urban riots deterring spur-of-the-moment decisions.

All these factors -- but particularly television -- have combined to deflate the hoped-for boom of free-spending US tourist here for the royal wedding.

British officials contacted by the Monitor confirmed that the boom didn't happen. But they did hope for a boomlet late this year and next year: "We hope you'll like what you see on the television, and decide to come and see us on your next holiday," said a spokesman for the British Tourist Authority.

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However, busloads of British tourists from outside London have poured in. So have visitors from Commonwealth countries. Dense crowds strolled and gawked along the wedding route from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul's Cathedral on the eve of the big day.

The nation was thirsting for some good news for a change.

The only shadow over the wedding preparations was the need for tight security at a time of tension in Northern Ireland. Incidents like the blank shots fired at the Queen in June are still vivid in memory.

The weather remained another preoccupation -- but even pouring rain will not deter many hundreds of thousands of people lining the route on the day.

The twang of American accents was still heard along the Strand, around Trafalgar Square, and on the Mall. American Express can still report superluxury tours. Thirty well-heeled socialities from Houston have paid a total of a $250,000 for first- class airfares and six days in London, including rooms at the St. James's club, a luxury bus with two stewardesses, and a special room overlooking the Strand and the procession with lunch served by cordon bleu chefs from Paris.

"But you have to remember," said a spokesman for the British Tourist Authority, "that this is not the Silver Jubilee" (the 25th anniversary of the Queen's accession, celebrated in 1977).

"The wedding is basically a one-day affair, with some build-up. The jubilee has events all the year.

"There are no more Americans in London this July than there were last July. The wedding doesn't seem to have made much difference.

"A lot of uncertainty has dampened down American enthusiasm this year, I think: our series of airport strikes, and the strong pound earlier in the year when the wedding was announced.

"And then there's your television. Really going to town, isn't it?"

Indeed. All three US commercial networks are staging their morning TV programs live from London the week of the wedding, with money apparently no object. TV crews are tramping through London, delighting in such touches as a shop assistant patiently explaining to a bewildered American buyer what a small woolen object in the shape of a crown was for. "It's an egg warmer," she said. "You know, to keep it warm."

"Why come here and be crowded when you can watch it in comfort at home?" said a spokesman for the London Tourist Board. "That's what we think a lot of Americans said to themselves."

A cashier at American Express headquarters in the Haymarket nodded toward a small line of people waiting to cash traveler's checks." "That's the first line we've had all summer," he said. "Tourism has been down."

The high point for US tourism to Britain was 1.964,000 in 1978, a year when the pound was weak -- and the Silver Jubilee the year before had generated favorable publicity.

the figure fell by almost 300,000 to 1,695,000 last year. It is expected to be roughly the same this year, wedding or no wedding.

Spokesmen for two hotel chains -- Grand Metropolitan, and Trust House Forte, with 37 hotels between them -- told me they had vacant rooms. "We have known for seven or eight weeks that we wouldn't be full," said Grand Metropolitan. "Our occupancy rate is slightly lower than usual."

On the security front, police sharpshooters were to be on building tops overlooking the route. Police checked and rechecked buildings from the Palace to St. Paul's. Police were worried about possible threats, not only by gunmen from the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) against the royal family, but to televisioncameras. Terrorists' aims could be to stop pictures going around the world.

Police were watching ports and airports for IRA members or their sympathizers.

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