As London quiets down, British bask in a post-Olympic glow

London 2012 gave Britain a patriotic boost – not to mention spectacular results at the medal table. Not everything, though, was as rosy as hoped.

Jeff J Mitchell/AP
The Olympic flag is handed from London Mayor, Boris Johnson, left, to the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, during the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 12.

Evenings at The Empress, an upmarket pub named after Queen Victoria’s Raj-time rule of India and located in London’s East End, suddenly seem a little hushed.

That is partly because it is August, and many of the pub’s regulars are on holiday. But it is also in contrast to the flood of customers the Empress fed and refreshed during the London 2012 Games, which centered on the Olympic Park, a 30-minute stroll away.

As the London Olympics fade into memory, the Empress, like other businesses in the area – and the country – is tallying what impact the Games might have on trade in the longer term.

There is no doubt that the 2012 London Olympics were a spectacular success. Team GB enjoyed its best performance in more than a century, coming third in the medals tables. Despite a last-minute security debacle, the event was well run and peaceful, the crowds charmed by the troops who stepped up to fill the gap. There were even moments of non-sporting brilliance, foremost among them a dazzling opening ceremony

But questions are inevitably being asked about what, if anything, all this might add up to in the longer term.

“I think the Olympics will have made a difference,” says Georgia Larcombe, the Empress’s manager. The area has been spruced up, transport links have been improved. And many visitors, both Londoners and foreign tourists, who might never have considered making the trek to this part of the capital, will now consider coming back, she reckons.

“If the area doesn’t stay as pleasant as it has been made for the Olympics we will have been let down,” she adds.

A real gold rush?

The economic legacy of the Games is the most pressing question being asked, largely because the government solicited it. In the run-up to the Games, anxious to defend the £9 billion-plus ($14 billion) bill, Prime Minister David Cameron said the Olympics would boost the economy by £13 billion over the next four years, with an uptick in international tourism, direct foreign investment, and business.

Some financial analysts have attempted to put a more precise figure on the Olympian effect on the economy. But most have limited their sums to small gains made to GDP in the current quarter.

That is because making a cost-benefit analysis of an event like this is almost impossible. It is easy enough to work out how much the Olympics cost the taxpayer, but the benefits are much harder to measure.

“It’s very difficult to measure the economic impact; there have been several sporting events studies but the results tend to be mixed,” says Bruce Morley, an economist with a special interest in sports at Bath University.

“And the Games are likely to help the economy in less tangible ways,” he adds, “like encouraging people to be more healthy and fit - things that are not included in GDP.”

The question of how the Games might stimulate the economy in East London, many parts of which have long been run-down and impoverished, is similarly vexed.

The regeneration of the area around the Olympic Park is happening independent of the Games, though they have doubtless given it a huge boost.  In 2018, for example, the Cross Rail –a £14.8 billion (about $23 billion) railway link providing a faster link between East and central London – will be completed, with huge benefits for local residents and businesses.

At the Empress pub, Larcombe says if customer numbers do now rise, the Games may be in part behind this. “But we were beginning to get more publicity before, so we were expecting that to happen anyway,” she says.

Less ambiguous, unfortunately, is the Olympics effect on tourism.

Tourists scared away

In the first few days of the Games, the European Tour Operators Association said tourist numbers had fallen “dramatically.” An announcement played out across the Underground by London's Mayor Boris Johnson, warning of “huge pressure on the transport network,” quickly fell silent.

Though there seemed to be an improvement as the Games progressed, a survey made by a tourism trade association after the Olympics were finished revealed that tourism had suffered.

Businesses in London and farther afield experienced a "significant reduction" in the number of visitors compared with last summer, according to the report by Ukinbound.

Andy Binns, owner of Lake District Tours, in the beautiful northwestern county of Cumbria, says the number of foreign visitors – his main market – was up to two-thirds lower than normal during the Games.

Few foreign tourists visit Britain without taking in the capital, he says, “and there was a perception it would be too expensive during the Olympics. As soon as they were over it was like a tap turning on, with overseas bookings flooding in.”

“I’d like to think that in the longer term, the Games will bring more foreign visitors,” he adds.

So does the government, which is using the Olympics as a springboard to launch Britain’s biggest-ever tourism campaign.

This week, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government aimed to increase inbound tourism by one-third, to 40 million by 2020, with a particular focus on China.

"We've been at the center of global attention in a way that has never happened before in our lifetimes and may never happen again,” said Mr. Hunt, as he launched the plan at the Tate Museum on London’s South Bank.  “Let's turn that into people who actually want to come and visit us."

Poll: Good value for the money

Despite front-page headlines about “ghost town” London and falling tourist numbers throughout the country, a poll published by the Guardian newspaper this week found that 55 percent of Britons felt the Olympics had been good value for money.

Since few of those polled will have made their own cost-benefit analysis of the Games, this can only refer to less tangible benefits Britons believe the $14 billion have bought.

It is hard to find a Briton who is not experiencing at least a tinge of patriotic pride in the wake of the Games. The last time so much attention was focused on London and other British cities was almost exactly a year ago, when riots and looting prompted soul searching about how society had created a degenerate, violent underclass.

The Games showed a different side of Britain: efficient, welcoming, and adept at tapping into its multicultural strengths. At a time of economic hardship and, more generally, a sense that Britain’s place on the world stage is ever-shrinking, the Olympics have been good for Britons’ confidence.

“The Olympics have restored a sense of national pride,” says Mark Millard, a psychologist.

“And while that sort of feeling tends to drop away quite quickly after such an event, the Olympics will have an enduring effect," he says. "If a small child has learned from watching athletes, some of whom have had some terrible struggles, that is going to change them, even if they themselves don’t realize it.”

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