The cobblestones are deserted at the Tower of London. A biting wind blows and there is no sign of life - even the Tower’s storied ravens are nowhere to be seen.
England’s top paid-for attraction, which normally draws more than 3 million visitors a year, has been shuttered for all but a dozen weeks since the pandemic began and international tourism to London came to an almost complete standstill.
The quietness has been surreal for Amanda Clark, one of the Tower’s famous resident guards known as Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters. The affable Clark, a retired sergeant major, lives for interacting with people: directing tourists, telling them stories, taking their selfies. Before March 2020, she would have been doing that happily everyday as endless crowds streamed into the fortress.
“It’s really quite extraordinary, how something so big and popular is just so quiet and empty,” said Clark, 46. “Don’t forget, we are classed as a prison. And these past few months have felt quite claustrophobic because there’s just been nobody here.”
After enduring three national lockdowns, attractions and hospitality businesses in London are making tentative plans to reopen from mid-May - the earliest Britain’s government says international travel can resume. But deep uncertainty about the risk of COVID-19 remains. With quarantine requirements and travel restrictions still in place everywhere and Europe battling a third wave of the pandemic, many in the capital are bracing for another bleak year.
Plagues, fires, war — London has survived them all. But it has never had a year like this. The coronavirus has killed more than 15,000 Londoners and shaken the foundations of one of the world’s great cities. As a fast-moving mass vaccination campaign holds the promise of reopening, The Associated Press looks at the pandemic’s impact on London’s people and institutions and asks what the future might hold.
For London’s tourism industry, which employs one in seven of the capital’s workers, the pandemic has been a body blow. With hotels, attractions and leisure shopping in near-total shutdown, the industry’s contribution to London’s economy plunged from 15.7 billion pounds in 2019 to just 3 billion pounds in the past year, according to VisitBritain, the national tourism agency.
Even national treasures like the Tower of London have struggled. Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that runs the Tower and other historic attractions, has said it expected a 100 million-pound shortfall because of COVID-19.
Many expect the path to recovery to be slow particularly because London is a city that’s always been hugely reliant on international tourism. Over half of all consumer spending in the West End - home to the city center’s bustling shops, restaurants, bars and theatres - typically comes from European and other overseas visitors.
In normal times, short-haul markets like European countries would generally be expected to recover faster than long-haul ones like the U.S. and Asia. But with the threat of new coronavirus variants in Europe and the slow vaccine rollout on the continent, experts say tourists are highly unlikely to start coming back in earnest until the fall.
“We can see that other countries, particularly our European neighbours who tend to be the biggest markets for us, we can see them going into third waves of COVID,” said Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at VisitBritain. “There is pent-up demand, people do want to come to Britain. But at the moment that simply isn’t possible.”
Nationally, officials are forecasting inbound tourism to generate just over 6 billion pounds this year, compared to more than 28 billion pounds in 2019. London’s Heathrow Airport has said it does not expect passenger flows to return to 2019 levels until around 2024.
A key question for the recovery this year is whether cumbersome quarantine rules can be eased and replaced by an efficient system of vaccine certificates for travellers, Yates added.
Stuart Procter, who manages the luxury Stafford Hotel near central London’s St. James’s Palace, would usually spend time on marketing trips to America, his core market. This year he hasn’t bothered.
For many, planning a holiday to London right now is impossible because there’s no certainty that big ticket events like the Wimbledon Championships in July can go ahead normally, he said.
“They’re not coming. There’s no activities … there’s nothing open for them to come to,” Procter said. “We’ve missed our cream, we missed our summer. I don’t think we’ll see any green shoots until the fourth quarter if I’m honest.”
In the longer term, industry experts are confident leisure travel will bounce back and tourists will eventually return to London. The big unknown, however, is whether business travel will ever be the same again.
“I think there’s much more of a question mark on business travel. And, of course, that affects the cities most,” said Yates, at VisitBritain. “You know, those big four- or five-star hotels in London absolutely need business travellers coming back again.”
Some attractions, including the Tower of London, are planning to switch their attention to courting domestic visitors for now to recuperate some losses. Laura Citron, CEO of London & Partners, which promotes business and investment in the capital, said one strategy is to bill this year as the golden opportunity for Britons to enjoy the capital’s top attractions without having to jostle with the usual crowds.
“We’re very much focused, certainly through the spring and the early summer, on Londoners and people from the rest of the U.K. rediscovering the city,” Citron said.
That may be easier said than done. When restrictions eased last summer, many Britons flocked to coastal and rural destinations for breaks. Surveys have showed many remain highly wary of visiting a big city and using buses and trains. London has always been proud of its public transport network and how few people drive into the city, but that key strength has become its weakness in the pandemic.
Some Londoners out walking on a recent weekend say that while they’ve enjoyed having the city to themselves, they’re also keen to see London open to visitors again soon.
“The usual tourist attractions which are usually chock-a-block with people from outside of town, feel a little bit more accessible in a way that’s a bit unexpected,” said Ashleigh Muchatuta, 33.
“One of the things that makes London interesting is the fact it’s a melting pot, the variety of people that you can bump into and hear just walking through the city” he added. “The things that attract people to the city are still going to be here and will outlast the pandemic, hopefully.”
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