Airports quiet as the Olympics keeps visitors away

200,000 fewer people flew into London in July than last year.

The thought of welcoming an influx of 300,000 or so visitors made even the least cynical Londoner wretch in anticipation. While optimists reveled in the thought of subletting their flats to American tourists, others slowly got used to the idea that tubes, trains, and pavements would be teeming with people who walk far too slowly.

And the London pace did slow. But not for the expected reasons. Statistics released by BAA (the company that owns most British airports) show that 4.1 per cent fewer passengers year-on-year made their way to Great Britain this July. Although Heathrow welcomed a record-breaking 236,955 passengers on the first day of the Games, there were roughly 200,000 less passengers in July 2012 relative to 2011. In particular, the airport noted a 6.6 per cent annual decrease in European traffic, even as North Atlantic traffic remained virtually unchanged. Stansted, Glasgow and Southampton experienced similar trends.

BAA’s statistics confirm anecdotal reports of London as a "ghost town". According to the Huffington Post, the city’s main attractions drew less crowds than before:

Bernard Donoghue, chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which represents venues ranging from London Zoo to St Paul's Cathedral, said visitor numbers were down by between 30% and 35%.

Donoghue argues that the reason for the drop is two-fold. Firstly, Londoners – obeying Mayor Boris – avoided the prophesied anarchy that would clot circulation within the capital. Secondly, non-Olympic foreign visitors were likely put off by fears of hotel overcrowding and general pandemonium.

In short, not only were there less visitors, but those that braved London went to Wimbledon rather than Wicked.

However, reports of record-breaking public transportation use somewhat contradict the aforementioned claims. On the 3rd of August, the Mayor announced that a record 4.4 million passengers used the Underground in one day. TFL further refuted claims of empty theatres with the fact that the West End’s stations saw a passenger increase of 27 per cent relative to 2011 on the 3rd of August. Moreover, Boris hailed the short-term economic success of the Olympics by boasting that eight out of every ten hotel rooms were full – an occupancy rate that far exceeded that of Beijing or Sydney.

Jeremy Hunt added to this optimism by claiming that consumption has risen with the Games, quoting Visa statistics showing that:

London spend in restaurants is up nearly 20% on a year ago, nightclub spending is up 24%, and spending on theatre and other tickets has doubled.

While it is too early to gauge whether Boris and Hunt have cherry-picked statistics (anecdotes of small shop owners would certainly support this), it remains less clear whether the Olympics will “turbo-charge our tourism industry”. London is neither Beijing nor Syndey, and certainly doesn’t need expensive PR gimmicks. Or maybe that’s just the newly instilled pride talking.

Planes leave Heathrow, but fewer people were on them this summer. Photograph: Getty Images
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt