London, Going Forward
Sunday, August 7, 2005
Alan Doyle usually draws a crowd of 40 to 50 tourists for his open-top bus tours of historical sites across London. Two Sundays ago, he had only seven takers.
A month after the July 7 suicide bomb attacks that killed 56 and injured at least 700, venues popular among tourists, ranging from the Tate Museum to boutiques in Covent Garden, have reported a drop in patrons. In the days following the explosion, the British Museum had a 30 percent drop in visitors, spokeswoman Hannah Bolton said. Curzon Cinemas, a popular chain, cited 44 percent fewer patrons during the weekend following the attacks. Both have bounced back, but not to pre-attack levels.
"I would like to say that the rain kept the crowds away today," shrugged the amiable Doyle. "But yesterday it was sunny and we had about the same number. The show is going on, but it's playing to half a house."
In the theater district, Doyle's comment was all too apt. Two nights after the four botched bomb explosions on July 21, a British and American troupe staged an impassioned performance of "The Genius of Ray Charles" at the Royal Haymarket theater, but a third of the seats were empty. Before the attacks, the show had been selling at close to capacity, according to Neil Reading Public Relations, the production's agent. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre lost $71,000 after canceling performances on July 7, the first time the popular stage has gone dark. Zoe Shurgold, a spokeswoman for the city's tourist office, Visit London, said that overall, the city's playhouses are logging a 20 percent drop in attendance.
Visit London officials predict that hotels and other travel services across the United Kingdom will suffer greater losses before the year ends. By their estimate, the fallout over July 7 will cost the United Kingdom, including London and other locales, $526 million in canceled trips from abroad in 2005.
Besides the threat of another terrorist strike, the intense security that is much in evidence around the city is a deterrent to some. "All those 'copters and police make it hard to have fun," said Steven Richards, a 70-year-old retiree, during a flight home from London to New York.
London police have dramatically ratcheted up patrols, particularly following the release of a videotape by Al Queda Thursday that threatened further attacks in London and the United States until their troops leave all Muslim countries. Indeed, uniformed guards are deployed on nearly every street corner in Central London and in all Underground stations.
Transit and security officials post frequent notices of delays. The Family Assistance Centre, a private organization, even offers "transit buddies," counselors especially trained to help those who are afraid to use the Underground. Surveillance helicopters circle low over the city into the wee hours. Bag searches are conducted at major museums and other public facilities. Theatergoers are required to check anything larger than a purse. Outdoor garbage cans have been clamped shut in many parts of town. "Watch Your Belongings at All Times," reads a sign flashing amid the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. "Report Any Suspicious Activity to the Police Immediately."
The effect has been especially daunting for novice travelers. The morning after she arrived for a five-day vacation, Elly Cotton, a 21-year-old student from Baltimore, went to the travel information office at Victoria Station and announced that she was cutting her trip short. "I need to know the quickest way to get to the airport," she said. "I refuse to get back on the Underground. I just can't take it."
To be sure, Americans, Western Europeans and other foreigners are still out in force and circulating throughout London. A family from Boise, Idaho, in line for theater tickets. Students from Boston, backpacks sprawled all around, picnicking in St. James's Park. A couple from New Orleans making neat work of steak and kidney pudding at the Butlers Wharf Chop House. According to several hotels and travel agencies, few Americans have canceled their trips since the attacks.
But many seem to be opting for attractions that are more appropriate in a city still in a state of grief. In the post-attack period, Kew Gardens, a spectacular park on the southwest edge of London, noted a rise in visitors, according to spokeswoman Sue Runyard. "People find comfort in quiet places in these times," she observed. Places of solace such as Westminster and St. Paul's cathedrals, always hot attractions, are also drawing crowds.
And then there are those who just carry on, unfazed. On July 22, within hours of their arrival for a long-scheduled vacation, Chicagoans Tom and Cathy Coyle hopped on the Underground and then onto an open-top excursion bus.