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Beyond the pandemic: London tourism braces for slow recovery

LONDON – The cobblestones are deserted at the Tower of London. A biting wind blows and there is no sign of life. Even the storied ravens are nowhere to be seen.

England’s top paid attraction, which normally draws more than 3 million visitors a year, has been closed for all but a dozen weeks since the pandemic began and international tourism to London came to an almost-complete standstill.

The quiet 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, posing for their selfies. Before March 2020, she would have been doing that happily every day as crowds streamed into the attraction, also home to the Crown Jewels.

Two tourists stand in front of Buckingham Palace, one of the official homes of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Thursday, March 25, 2021. After enduring three national lockdowns, attractions and hospitality businesses in London are making tentative plans to reopen from mid-May. But deep uncertainty about the coronavirus remains. With quarantine requirements and travel restrictions still in place everywhere and Europe battling a new surge of infections, many are bracing for another bleak year.

“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.”

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.

After three national lockdowns, London’s tourist attractions and other hospitality businesses are making tentative plans to reopen in mid-May -- the earliest the government says international travel can resume. But deep uncertainty about COVID-19 remains. With quarantine requirements and travel restrictions still in place everywhere and Europe battling a new surge of infections, many are bracing for another bleak year.

A sign placed in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace which says there is no Changing of the Guard ceremony, which has been halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in London, Thursday, March 25, 2021. After three national lockdowns, London’s tourist attractions and other hospitality businesses are making tentative plans to reopen in mid-May -- the earliest the government says international travel can resume.

For London’s tourism industry, which employs one in seven workers in the capital, the pandemic has been a body blow. With hotels, attractions and leisure shopping in a near-total shutdown, the industry’s contribution to London’s economy plunged from 15.7 billion pounds ($21.6 billion) in 2019 to just 3 billion pounds ($4.1 billion) 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 heritage attractions, has said it expected a 100 million-pound ($137 million) shortfall because of COVID-19.

Many expect a slow recovery, particularly because London always has been reliant on international tourism. Over half of all consumer spending in the West End – home to the city center’s bustling shops, restaurants, pubs and theaters – 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 coronavirus variants in Europe and the slow vaccine rollout on the continent, experts say tourists are highly unlikely to return in earnest until autumn.

“We can see that other countries, particularly our European neighbors 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.”

Memorabilia is displayed in the window of the closed official Buckingham Palace shop across the road from the Palace in London, Thursday, March 25, 2021.

Nationally, officials forecast inbound tourism to generate just over 6 billion pounds ($8.2 billion) this year, compared with more than 28 billion pounds ($38 billion) in 2019. 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 travelers, Yates added.

Stuart Procter, who manages the luxury Stafford Hotel near central London’s St. James’s Palace, would usually go on marketing trips to America, his core market. This year, he hasn’t bothered.

For many, planning a vacation to London now is impossible because there’s no certainty that big events like the two-week Wimbledon tennis championships in July can go ahead normally, he said.

The moon rises over Tower Bridge in London, Monday, March 29, 2021. After enduring three national lockdowns, attractions and hospitality businesses in London are making tentative plans to reopen from mid-May. But deep uncertainty about the coronavirus remains. With quarantine requirements and travel restrictions still in place everywhere and Europe battling a new surge of infections, many are bracing for another bleak year.

“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 that leisure travel will bounce back and tourists will return to London eventually. 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 of VisitBritain. “You know, those big four- or five-star hotels in London absolutely need business travelers coming back again.”

Some attractions, including the Tower of London, are planning to focus on domestic visitors to recoup some losses. Laura Citron, CEO of London & Partners, which promotes business and investment in the capital, said one strategy is to market this year as the golden opportunity for Britons to enjoy its top attractions without the usual crowds.

A general view towards the City of London from outside of the Tower of London, Saturday, March 6, 2021. The pandemic has dealt a blow to London’s tourism industry, which employs one in seven of the capital’s workers. Even top attractions like the Tower of London have struggled as COVID-19 curtailed international tourism.

“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. Surveys have showed many remain wary of visiting a big city and using mass transit. London has always been proud of its public transportation network and how few people drive into the city, but that strength has become a weakness in the pandemic.

Some Londoners out on a recent weekend say that while they’ve enjoyed having the city to themselves, they’re also keen to see it reopen to visitors 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.”

Members of the public cycle and walk down the Mall with is closed to road traffic at the weekends in London, Saturday, March 27, 2021. After three national lockdowns, London’s tourist attractions and other hospitality businesses are making tentative plans to reopen in mid-May – the earliest the government says international travel can resume.
People walk past a closed-off children’s roundabout on the South Bank of the River Thames near the London Eye big wheel in London, Thursday, March 25, 2021.
A boy climbs onto part of Nelson’s Column and looks at one of the four lion statues at the base of the column with the Queen Elizabeth II tower in the background in London, Saturday, March 27, 2021. The Queen Elizabeth II tower contains the bell known as Big Ben and is currently undergoing a major refurbishment.
People walk in front of The National Gallery seen from Trafalgar Square in London, Saturday, March 27, 2021. After three national lockdowns, London’s tourist attractions and other hospitality businesses are making tentative plans to reopen in mid-May -- the earliest the government says international travel can resume.
A view of the London Eye big wheel with empty tourist boats tied up on a quiet River Thames in London, Thursday, March 25, 2021. After three national lockdowns, London’s tourist attractions and other hospitality businesses are making tentative plans to reopen in mid-May – the earliest the government says international travel can resume.
People walk past two members of the mounted Household Cavalry on guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, Saturday, March 27, 2021.
Sunrise over the River Thames from Waterloo Bridge looking east with St Paul’s Cathedral, left of center and the “Walk Talkie” building at center in London, Saturday, March 27, 2021.
Chief Operating Officer of the Stafford hotel Stuart Procter pictured at the hotel in London, Thursday, March 4, 2021. Procter, who manages the luxury Stafford Hotel near central London’s St. James’s Palace, would usually go on marketing trips to America, his core market. This year, he hasn’t bothered. For many, planning a vacation to London now is impossible because there’s no certainty that big events like the two-week Wimbledon tennis championships in July can go ahead normally, he said.
The empty bar at the Stafford hotel near central London’s St. James’s Palace with the ceiling covered with sporting and other memorabilia, Thursday, March 4, 2021.
A painting of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II hangs in the reception area of the Stafford hotel near central London’s St. James’s Palace, Thursday, March 4, 2021.
A barge makes its way down the River Thames past the Tower of London, Saturday, March 6, 2021. The pandemic has dealt a blow to London’s tourism industry, which employs one in seven of the capital’s workers. Even top attractions like the Tower of London have struggled as COVID-19 curtailed international tourism.
Yeoman Warder Amanda Clark walks in the Tower of London, Thursday, March 4, 2021. England’s top paid attraction, which normally draws more than 3 million visitors a year, has been closed for all but a dozen weeks since the pandemic began and international tourism to London came to an almost-complete standstill. The quiet has been surreal for Clark, one of the Tower’s famous resident guards known as Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, who lives for interacting with people: directing tourists, telling them stories, posing for their selfies.