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Will the London Olympics Bring a Travel Boom or Bust?

November 29, 2011

Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2011

Next year is a big one for tourism in Britain -- first the June celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne), then the Summer Olympics in late July and early August. But some tourism professionals are questioning the worth of those Olympic rings -- especially against the rings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

For several years, the European Tour Operators Assn. has been pointing out that the games bring high prices that scare off many travelers; and that Olympic boosters worldwide have a history of exaggerating television viewership and visitor projections. The association, which has produced several skeptical Olympics reports over the last five years, asserts that "no city has yet predicted with any accuracy the number of people who attend" Olympic events.

On Nov. 7, the group released results of a survey of 38 European tour operators that seems to show how the Olympics can scare off conventional leisure travelers. The surveyed operators reported that bookings during the Summer Olympics were running 95 percent behind last year. For July and August, bookings were down 60 percent, the survey found, and for the rest of 2012 bookings were running 20 percent below this time last year.

Then again, sports fans could fill those empty summer spots. VisitBritain, the British government tourism arm, has forecast 500,000 to 900,000 visitors to London in 2012 for the games. On Dec. 4, we'll post a package of stories on London, the Olympic Games (July 27-Aug. 12), and the prices that travelers to London can expect in 2012.

But first, some skeptical counterpoint from the ETOA, whose researchers have looked at statistics from Barcelona (1992) and Sydney (2000) -- two Olympics that are often cited as notable financial successes -- as well as Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Among the findings in the ETOA reports:

-- Though Barcelona has grown enormously as a tourism destination in the years since the 1992 Games, the short-term results weren't so rosy. Hotel occupancy rates actually fell from 1991 to 1992 (in part because many new hotels were opening) and fell further over the next two years, the ETOA said. As for the city's growth in popularity since then, the ETOA continued, the Olympics may or may not have played a key role. Venice and Florence in Italy and Lisbon showed comparable growth in the mid-'90s, and Prague and Dublin showed comparable or superior growth between 1992 and 2003.

-- For three years after the Sydney Olympics in 2000, international visitor arrivals in Australia decreased, the ETOA found. Part of that slump may be attributable to 9/11, the report said, but the decline began before that. In fact, New Zealand (which served as location for the 2001 film "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring") was gaining visitors while Australia was losing them. Whatever benefits came from the games, the report observed, "they clearly pale when compared with the impact of 'Lord of the Rings.' "

-- During August 2004, the month of the Olympic Games in Beijing, international visitor arrivals to China were down 30 percent from the previous August. The Beijing Games may have succeeded in announcing China to the world as a 21st-century force to be reckoned with, the report said, but for those in the tourism industry, those Olympics were "a toxic event that crushed normal demand, both business and leisure."

The London Olympics (July 27-Aug. 12, 2012) will be preceded by the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration weekend (June 2-5) and followed by the London Paralympics (Aug. 29- Sept. 9).

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