London At Home — Tourism

London Portrait Magazine — June 1983

CHRISTOPHER LONG looks at the [1983 London] tourist season.

By Christopher Long

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Don't worry, in four months' time it will all be over. Come October the streets will be our own again; the coaches will have stopped clogging our road system; and we'll be able to get onto a bus. But, is the four months of London's tourist season really worth the agony that we put up with each year – even if tourism does earn us an estimated £2,300 million in 1983.

These are questions we have been asking ourselves for years, and it may be that we'll get some of the answers in 1985. A survey is now being carried out by the GLC, in collaboration with the English Tourist Board and the London Tourist Board, which is intended to evaluate the price we pay for London's biggest industry and foreign currency earner. The 'economic impact' survey should make interesting reading although it is quite clear that the organisations who are carrying it out all have vested interests in convincing us that we really do need an invasion of about 20,000,000 visitors to London each year.

The statistics provided by the London Tourist Board make impressive reading. In 1982 there were 7.1 million visitors from overseas and a further 12 million visitors from within the U.K. About 250,000 people in London have full-time jobs as a result of London's tourist industry, and another 200,000 part-time, seasonal workers are also dependent on tourists for their living.

But against this must be set the hidden costs that we, the tax-payers and rate-payers, have to foot each year to make the industry possible. Roads, street signs, public services, the National Health, subsidised transport, information services and the cost of clearing up the mess are just a very few of the burdens we have to pay for, while the environmental cost in terms of lost amenities, traffic problems and disruption of everyday life are also considerable. Nevertheless, no-one would suggest that tourism in London should be curbed although it can legitimately be said that London does carry an abnormally large burden which the English Tourist Board would like to see spread more evenly – and profitably – over the country as a whole.

That said, it is interesting to know what the tourists come here for and whether we're good at giving them what they want. Presumably we aren't too bad at attracting them because the LTB forecast a continuing 'improvement' in the figures for 1983 despite world recession, increasing travel costs and competition from the other countries eager to compete for the lucrative business of foreign tourism. Indeed, the dollar weakness is likely to have a significant effect on Britain's traditional American trade. Whether they get what they want, however, is another matter.

The London Tourist Board issue a league table of the most popular attractions in London which, they say, gives some indication of what the invaders are looking for. The most recent available figures are for 1981:

  1. The Science Museum — 4.2m.
  2. The British Museum — 3.8m.
  3. The National Gallery — 2.6m.
  4. The Tower of London — 2.5m.
  5. The National History Museum — 2.4m.
  6. The Victoria & Albert Museum — 1.7m.
  7. Westminster Abbey — 1.5m.
  8. St. Paul's Cathedral — 1.5m.
  9. The London Zoo — 1.3m.
  10. The Tate Gallery — 1.3m.

There's only one thing wrong with these statistics – how many of the visitors are tourists? I wouldn't mind betting that most of the visitors to the Science Museum are school children and young families from Croydon. And where is the Changing of The Guard in the league? Surely fairly near the top of the First Division if anybody could find a way of counting them. Harrods and Marks & Spencer must come high on the league too.

The fact is that the list may tell us what tourists and visitors visit but it doesn't tell us whether there's anything else they'd prefer.

Perhaps I'm not typical but I rather suspect that tours, sight-seeing and museums are not what tourists really want. What most want when we go abroad is adventure. Not knowing quite what to expect, making discoveries and at the same time feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that we have at least seen the well-known sights as well so that we can wear Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square as talismans – proof that we've actually been there.

Talk to a tourist anywhere in the world and you'll find, deep down, it was the plumbing, the extraordinary character at the hotel reception desk, the site of river police hauling a body out of the Thames, or the very curious 'goings-on' in the next door room, which engrave themselves in the memory. In fact, the pre-packed, hermetically sealed, coach-bound tourist industry may be the best way of organising tourists and separating them from their traveller's cheques but is it, in the long run, the best way of making London an adventure and something different? The London Transport Board are currently sailing under the banner of 'London is Spectacular' but perhaps they would do better to pinch the Coca-Cola slogan – the Real Thing – or even 'London's Whatever You Want'. Which brings me onto the other side of tourism – us.

Those of us who live in Kensington, Chelsea, Westminster or Knightsbridge probably don't spend a lot of time wandering around Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, The Tower, or The Mall. When did many of us last visit St. Paul's or take the boat up the river to Hampton Court? In a way it's not surprising. We probably don't want our visits pre-packaged and aimed at the lowest common denominator of intelligence while paying inflated prices for undersized, soggy hot-dogs. (Why should we assume that foreign tourists want it either?).

But on our door-steps or not very far away are some attractions that few of the mass-market tourists will ever see – gems that prove London really is almost anything you want it to be. High on the list for this year must be The Chelsea Physick Garden in Royal Hospital Road which is opening its gates to the public for the first time since it was established in the 17th Century. Lady Glenkinglas and other friends of the small but fascinating 'secret garden' are hoping to help save the famous herb garden and botanical paradise from financial starvation by opening it to the public on two days each week from now until October 23.

Visitors and accompanied children (£1 and 50p) will be admitted and shown round on Wednesdays from 11 am - 5 pm and on Sundays from 2 pm - 5 pm.

Not far away, at Cheyne Row, is Carlyle's House where the famous historian, Thomas, and his wife Jane lived from 1834 until their deaths. Beautifully maintained by the National Trust it is almost exactly the same as it was in mid-Victorian times – so much so that visitors are advised to avoid dull days because the furniture, books, paintings and relics are otherwise almost invisible in parts of the house with no electric light. The house is open every day except Mondays and Tuesdays until the end of October (11 am - 5 pm and on Sundays 2 pm - 5 pm), admission 70p/35p.

Two other places well worth visiting in the same area are the much under-rated National Army Museum in Royal Hospital Road and, of course, the Royal Hospital itself. The museum is a modern and superbly displayed collection of arms, armour, relics, paintings and books covering every aspect of the history of British Armies through the ages, and even the most determined pacifist will find the displays historically fascinating. Particularly worth noting are the imaginative and very popular range of supervised holiday activities for school-children during the holidays. Open 10 am - 5.30 pm during weekdays and 2 pm - 5.30 pm on Sundays – closed on public holidays, admission free.

The Royal Hospital is so well known and so impressive that many people never think of visiting it. Built 300 years ago by Sir Christopher Wren, its quiet courtyards, hall, chapel and museum are beautiful and fascinating and set in delightful grounds that offer much needed peace and tranquillity with views down to the Thames. Old soldiers are always on hand to act as guides of course. In addition to that, it is interesting to note that Sir Christopher could have taught present day architects a thing or two about how to design a building for the elderly and infirm! By-passing the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Geological Museum, and the disastrous Victoria & Albert Museum (which must rank as one of the world's worst presented museums where visitors can see marvels but learn next to nothing) there are two small gems in Kensington.

Linley Sambourne House at 18 Stafford Terrace, W8, just off Kensington High Street must be one of the most intriguing houses in London. Bought by the GLC in 1980 from Lady Rosse, it is now administered by the Victorian Society who now open it two days each week for the benefit of adults only who want to see what an authentic Victorian interior was like. Almost nothing has changed inside since Sambourne, the Punch cartoonist lived there. The original wall decorations, William Morris paper, fixtures, fittings and furniture are all preserved in the highly 'artistic' and aesthetic style of the times. The result is quite unique. Open on Wednesdays 10 am - 4 pm. and Sundays 2 pm - 5 pm March to October. Admission £1.50.

Rather the same – only different! – is the rather better-known Leighton House in Holland Park Road which is now a combined museum and small arts centre. Here the Arab Hall and highly romantic interior, designed by the artist himself, gives another exotic slant on late Victorian style.

Of course, any list of places to visit is bound to be inadequate, leaving out many of the most attractive and interesting places along the way. But, as we brace ourselves for even more tourists this year, particularly of the higher-spending, long-haul kind, spending about 15 per cent more than last year, we are probably best advised to stick to local backwaters. There will probably be more Americans (up 20 per cent) constituting 18.6 per cent of the total and many more Germans and Italians because of currency exchange rates. The hotels will be doing very good business, it is predicted, and for the second year in a row London can expect total tourist revenue to outstrip inflation. All of which is good news for Britain but at what price to Londoners? That we'll find out when the joint survey reports in 1985.

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© (1983) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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