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After Warnings of an Olympic Crush, Businesses Suffer in a Deserted London

John F. Burns|The New York Times
Friday, 3 Aug 2012 | 9:35 AM ET

After a week of unusually quiet streets, idling cabs and easily navigated shops, fears of the Gridlock Games have transformed into complaints about the Ghost Town Olympics.

Big Ben
Don Klumpp | Iconica | Getty Images
Big Ben

Experts say tens of thousands of foreign tourists without tickets to the Olympic Games appeared to have decided to skip London, bowing to official warnings of stifling overcrowding — a forecast that ignored the lessons of other Olympic host cities that have emptied out during the Games over the past 20 years. In even larger numbers, these experts say, Britons themselves, including tens of thousands who normally commute to work in London, have heeded official appeals and stayed home.

With the Games nearing the end of their first week, and 10 more days to go, there has been no sign of the normal tourist-inflated crush at this time of the year — much less the no-room-to-move congestion officials warned would come with huge throngs of Olympic visitors competing for space on London’s notoriously overcrowded roads and transit systems, and in its shops, theaters, museums, galleries and restaurants.

On Thursday, officials were driven to the sort of backfilling familiar to Britons, as the government retreated from its predictions of a return to prosperity after two years of deep austerity to counterbalance the spending of the previous Labour government. With the economy shrinkingat an annual rate of nearly 3 percent, Prime Minister David Cameron has pointed to extraneous factors as a prime cause of the government’s failure to meet its economic targets, including weeks of appalling weather and working days lost to Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee in June as she celebrated her 60 years on the throne.

Jeremy Hunt, the culture and sport minister in the Cameron cabinet, said Thursday that people who saw the Olympics as an economic body blow were premature and taking too narrow a view. The government now acknowledges that there is unlikely to be any short-term boost from the Games. It has reassured those nervous about its outlay on the Games — put at about $15 billion by government officials and as high as $20 billion by some experts, with road, railway and other improvements factored in — that the expense will be recouped in the long term by a $20 billion boost in Britain’s trade.

“Having the Olympics in London is the best possible gift you could ask for because it has given London a profile on the global stage,” Hunt said, to the surprise of those who had thought that London was already well established as one of the world’s major cities.

Mayor Boris Johnson, one of the Games’ biggest boosters, has made a midcourse correction of his own. He has admitted that the instant Olympic bounce he once forecast for London’s economy has evaporated, replaced by a “patchy” performance across many important sectors. But holding out for a turnaround, he has said things could improve as people realize that London without the crowds has become an unusually inviting place to go.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the past week has been the absence of traffic congestion. Transport for London, which oversees the city’s transit system, warned on Thursday that 200,000 people were expected to head to Olympic Park on Friday for the start of the track and field competition, double the number who showed up on any previous day of the Games so far.

But mostly, the emphasis has been on pulling back from the forebodings that characterized the prelude to the Games. Many of the so-called Zil lanes on roads running to Games sites, named for the V.I.P. limousines that ran in dedicated lanes across Moscow in the Soviet era, have been opened to everyday traffic.

Trains and subway lines have run smoothly. Recordings of Johnson urging people not to “get caught” in the Olympic crush — and to work from home if they can — have played across eerily quiet concourses at mainline stations like Victoria and Waterloo.

Normally crowded sidewalks in areas like Knightsbridge, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Piccadilly and Soho have looked much as they do when the city empties for summer weekends. Tables at sidewalk cafes have gone begging, and tickets to the West End’s normally sold-out hit shows are readily available, often at 20 percent discounts.

Cabdrivers complain that business is down 30 percent from normal at this time of year. “Where are the million extra visitors that we were promised?” asked Steve McNamara, a spokesman for the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association. He coupled this with a palpable absence of the national pride Mr. Cameron has urged on a nation hosting its first Olympics since 1948. “I’m looking forward to the closing ceremony,” on Aug. 12, McNamara said.

Stores in the upscale West End shopping district have said sales are down by 10 percent and more, and restaurants used to turning people away are desperate for trade. Ricky McMenemy, managing director of the Rules restaurant in Covent Garden, popular with Americans for a menu specializing in traditional British foods, said that after a “disaster” last Friday, when diners stayed away to watch the opening ceremony, the restaurant was “seeing a 50 percent downturn” in diners this week. Hundreds of West End hotels that had advertised rooms at premium prices, in some cases five times the normal rate, have dropped prices back to the usual level or even offered heavy discounts.

Still, McMenemy shared Johnson’s optimism that things would look up as people realized that the warnings of crowding were overstated. “There are some amber flags up at the moment, but there’s no need for any red ones to be waved just yet,” he said.

But the stoicism has been rare. Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax Theaters, which owns six of the West End’s best-known show houses, said the week before had been the worst week of the year, The Evening Standard reported. “We’re bleeding,” she was quoted as saying. “I think the Olympics are great, but I feel like I’ve been the bull’s-eye for the archery competition.”