A particular weak point, although, is Heathrow Airport, the world’s busiest, which is a grubby and chaotic place at the best of times. More than 80 per cent of athletes and visitors will pass through it. There won’t be any extra flights during the Games – with only two runways, its schedules are already full – but will have 45 per cent more passengers on its busiest arrival day and 35 per cent more bags on its busiest departure day. Normally, only 65 per cent of its passengers are disembarking in London (the rest are changing flights to other cities), a proportion that will rise to almost 90 per cent during the Games. While every customs officer in the country will be expected to work during the Olympics, officials already warn that passport lineups could be more than an hour long.
The 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, were generally considered a success at the time. But then the Australians discovered what many Olympic nations have found: The big tourism boost that most governments expect, and that is used to justify the steep cost of the Games, just doesn’t happen. In fact, the Olympic coverage sometimes drives people away, as they decide your city is expensive and crowded.
The Australians expected 132,000 visitors for the 2000 Games, and then received only 97,000 tourists during the entire period. That was better than Athens, where organizers expected 105,000 tourists per night and received only 14,000.
But the real troubles in Sydney began after the Games. Australian officials had expected that the Olympics would boost the Sydney “brand,” and overall tourism would nearly quadruple to eight or 10 million people per year in the years after the Olympics. In fact, there was no boost at all: Tourism in Sydney has stayed steady, at about 2.5 million visitors a year even as tourist numbers have risen sharply across the rest of the region.
“We are renowned for running a great gig but squandering an opportunity,” Chris Brown, the head of Sydney’s tourism association, told reporters on the 10th anniversary of their Games. Like many Olympic cities, Sydney discovered that hotel vacancies actually increase dramatically during the Games – because nobody dares visit the city for any reason other than the Olympics. In some cities, including Beijing, Athens and Sydney, those vacancies have remained high for a long time after the Games.
In response, London Mayor Boris Johnson has launched a publicity campaign to convince overseas visitors that it’s still worth visiting London this summer even if you’re not attending the Games. This includes a quiet mission to persuade hotels here not to raise rates just because the Olympics are on. Nationally, the government has created a £1-billion marketing fund for the tourist agency VisitBritain to inform international travellers that the country is “open for business” despite the Olympics.
Nevertheless, international tourism officials warn that Britain may be in for a disappointment: Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympics, has confidently predicted a million extra tourists coming to Britain during the Games – something that would be a first in recent Olympic history, and a sharp reversal of the usual trend.
Visitors to Athens these days can tour the city’s famous ancient Greek ruins – or, if they wish, the much more recent but equally vacant ruins of the 2004 Olympics. In a fit of hubris, Greece hoped it could become the permanent home of the Games. At extraordinary cost, the Greeks built numerous large stadiums, many out of marble, and a dedicated monorail train line to connect them. Years later, much of this pricey infrastructure sits empty and useless – local farmers graze their pigs inside the vacant weightlifting stadium.
London officials have pledged from the beginning that the Games will be used to revitalize the city, and no buildings, Olympic Village facilities or transit lines will be wasted. It’s a strategy of clever reuse that some have called the Lego Olympics. In part, this is because the International Olympic Committee has become dismayed by the site of lonely, abandoned former Olympic sites in places like Athens, Barcelona and Montreal.