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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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