With its half-empty restaurants and calm streets central London looks more like a ghost town than an Olympic city, and recession-hit traders are still waiting for the promised gold rush of tourists.
Sales are down across the normally crowded British capital after warnings of travel chaos and overpriced hotel rooms apparently scared off many visitors, while those who did come are staying around the Olympic Park in east London.
“Compared to last year people are just not coming,” said Michelle Wade, who runs Maison Bertaux in the trendy Soho area, which claims to be London’s oldest patisserie.
“It’s not just for this kind of business, it’s the pubs, even my friend — he’s a very well know hairdresser, but last Saturday he only had two clients. Normally it’s about 24.”
Halfway through the Games the mood is unusually calm in Soho, a usually busy area in the center of the capital, several kilometers from Stratford, where the Olympic Park is located.
In an empty men’s clothes store, manager Rob Grogan said there had been a 30 percent drop in customers in the week after the Olympics started on July 27, compared to the week before that.
“We were told by Transport for London, the local council and Westminster council that we’d probably see a shop increase in footfall and traffic and the resulting increase in sales as well — that hasn’t happened,” he said.
He said warnings earlier in the year to avoid central London had “scared a lot of people away from London”.
In the run-up to the Olympics, commuters and tourists alike were warned to stay away, amid fears the creaking transport system could not cope with millions of athletes, support staff, media and spectators descending on the capital.
The Games have long been heralded as a key boost to the recession-hit British economy but industry body the European Tour Operators Association said tourist numbers had fallen “dramatically” since the Games began.
And the transport chaos has failed to materialize. Prime Minister David Cameron even appealed to people recently to come back into the deserted capital.
“It is rubbish, we don’t want this nonsense any more,” said a woman who runs several souvenir shops and stalls on Oxford Street, what is normally Europe’s busiest shopping thoroughfare.
Gesturing at an empty store, the woman, who asked not to be named, added: “The tourists should be here, we rely on them, but now they are not interested. They are not spending, they don’t have a penny, this is the wrong crowd.”
Outside a McDonald’s restaurant on Oxford Street three young tourists who came from Amsterdam to watch the qualifying rounds for the Olympic tennis and hockey were eating hamburgers.
They said they were staying at a campsite and were spending no money in central London.
“It is not why we came here, not at all,” said Marianne, 27, one of the tourists.
Swedish visitors Ann and Soren Forsberg said they had come to London at the last minute to see the equestrian events and the triathlon after getting a special deal for airline tickets.
“We thought it would be sold out to come here but obviously a lot of people didn’t come here at all, and hotels aren’t a problem either,” Ann Forsberg said.
“We haven’t been in the shops, we are not here to shop this time.”
But in a leafy square in the middle of Soho, two Swiss students said they were enjoying the quiet compared to the frenzied activity around the Olympic Park itself.
“We were in Stratford for the evening yesterday and it was terrible compared with central London, where it is quite cool, it is less crowded,” said Lea, 19, one of the students.