London's year as a ghost city – and how our tourist hotspot could emerge from the pandemic

Emma Featherstone
·6-min read
Piccadilly circus - Getty
Piccadilly circus - Getty

Cast your mind back to last March 23, 2020. It was our first day we were told to “stay at home”. The city emptied of office workers. Tourists retreated. Some businesses were forced close. The exodus from London’s streets was stark. Images of an empty Piccadilly Square and deserted Regent Street filled newspaper pages.

Now in our third lockdown, London, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the UK economy, is once again disconcertingly quiet. Hotels, attractions, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and “non-essential” shops are mostly shuttered. All but essential travel is against government guidance. As we swiftly head towards the anniversary of the first nationwide closure – for now, lockdown regulations are due to expire on March 31 – how might 12 months of restrictions have left our greatest tourist city?

To begin with, the pandemic has resulted in a dramatic drop off in international arrivals. Pre-Covid, tourism was worth £18.7 billion to the economy. Some 21 million international visitors came to London in 2019. Allen Simpson of London & Partners, the organisation responsible for promoting London as a tourist destination, says visits to the city fell by approximately 72 per cent last year.

Regent Street amid the latest lockdown - Getty
Regent Street amid the latest lockdown - Getty

He is, unsurprisingly, upbeat about our capital's ability to bounce back. “When restrictions were periodically eased we saw attractions booking up fast, footfall increasing and London theatres reporting strong ticket sales, which is really positive,” he says. “With the vaccine now available, we expect demand to return quickly once restrictions are lifted in 2021.”

However, even if the vaccine roll-out continues to prove a success, the fits and starts and complex rules that hospitality and tourism businesses have weathered could be set to continue. The greatest hope of an end to restrictions may be the immunisation of most of the UK population: every adult will be offered the coronavirus vaccine by autumn, promised Matt Hancock.

Even if this brings the lifting of many Covid rules (bearing in mind that Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said earlier this month that some may need to be reintroduced come winter), the lucrative summer season will be wiped out.

Should some high profile annual events go ahead – from Wimbledon (with a reduced capacity or ‘behind closed doors’ versions of the championship being considered for 2021) to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (negative Covid tests could be required) – they are unlikely to be able to attract the usual influx of tourists.

rhs chelsea flower show - Getty
rhs chelsea flower show - Getty

This will be a blow to London’s hotels, which, according to Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, are the most beleaguered part of the sector “with domestic travel over the summer [2020] being to rural or seaside destinations and inbound foreign travel virtually non-existent”.

“To compound the situation for hotels is that the often higher-value business trade was also extremely low,” she adds.

Big-name summer events and London’s theatre district are two of the most effective customer drivers for businesses such as the Stafford Collection, which includes Stafford London (a five-star Mayfair hotel) and Norma (a Sicilian restaurant in Fitzrovia), says Stuart Procter, its chief operating officer.

“The summer has gone for London – now is the time I would [usually] be New York, Dallas, Texas and LA, promoting business,” Procter says.

“For the majority of major London hotels, America is the number one market … they aren’t going to come. It’s looking like the fourth quarter is when we will start [to get back to normal].”

Firms such as the Stafford Collection have been haemorrhaging staff. “It’s been devastating,” says Procter. “We’ve had to close three times now, so the impact on our business has been huge.

“We’ve had to make half the workforce redundant, including people who have worked for me for decades.”

“When we reopen, the levels of business will be nowhere near what they were in early 2020.”

The Stafford Collection’s outposts have received just £9,000 in government support over three months, which Procter says “does not wipe the sides of electricity bills for a week.”

Over in the east of the city, Richard Wynne, owner of Shoreditch bar Callooh Callay, is similarly scathing about the government’s handling of hospitality.

“Assuming the current lockdown runs until mid-March, we will have been closed two out of every three days, which is financially crippling,” he says.

Pre-lockdown 3.0, UK Hospitality predicted that up to 95 per cent of operators in Tier 4 areas (under which food and drinks businesses could not operate, except for takeaway) would not be able to survive.

“This will be devastating for London as a destination, not just for international tourists but local tourists coming in from Home Counties and maybe beyond,” says Wynne.

“The hotels can’t run at 20 per cent occupancy so they will close, restaurants will be left to rot along with whatever is in the chest freezer.

“With the Brexit transition complete, I feel we will see a huge drop in quality and go back to the bad old days of the nineties where everything will once again be factory produced, which will topple London from being a global tourist hotspot to a laughable annex of European leftovers.”

primrose hill - AFP
primrose hill - AFP

The future is also bleak for visitors attractions such as zoos, gardens, museums and galleries, suggests Bernard Donoghue, director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) and the mayor of London’s Ambassador for Cultural Tourism. He says all of the above are in financial crisis.

“[These attractions] are almost entirely dependent on the money spent by visitors to survive and some have opened, in the brief periods they could, to just 3–4 per cent of normal capacity in order to adhere to social distancing requirements,” he says.

“They must be allowed to open in time for Easter, at the latest, in order to benefit from only their second Bank Holiday for a whole year, and the Government must maintain the reduced rate of VAT for attractions and hospitality beyond the end of this financial year if these companies are to have any hope in repairing their balance sheets and surviving,” Donoghue adds.

All this said, there is hope London's tourism industry can regain its buzz this year (at least among domestic visitors) as the vaccine is rolled out further – the UK is fourth in the worldwide Covid immunisation league table with 6.9 doses having been administered per 100 people, to date.

Meanwhile, Simpson, of London & Partners, points to signs of renewed demand.

He says: “Skyscanner data shows that London is the most searched destination for Americans looking to travel next summer, which is really encouraging.

“We are confident that there will be a sharp recovery in international tourism to London.”

Even Procter sees a glimmer of light: “There’s no city like London in the world […] and our business can make people smile again quicker than anyone else.

“We have to get open again and begin a roaring twenties.”