Riots threaten Britain's image ahead of Olympics

14th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Barely a fortnight after beginning the one-year countdown to the London Olympics, Britain has been left bruised by a wave of rioting and now faces a struggle to restore its reputation among tourists.

Prime Minister David Cameron has led calls for Britain to put on a fresh face, after images of youths burning buildings and cars across the country were splashed across newspapers and television screens worldwide.

European governments warned their citizens visiting Britain to avoid crowds, while South Africa advised its nationals against all non-essential travel to the country, as if Britain had become the world's latest warzone.

It is hard to believe that it was only in April that hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to London for the spectacular marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and two billion viewers worldwide watched it on television.

Cameron said the country must now work to wipe the image of burning streets and masked gangs from the world's mind before the Olympics in July 2012.

"We need to show the world, which has looked on frankly appalled, that the perpetrators of the violence we have seen on our streets are not in any way representative of our country -- nor of our young people," he said.

"And a year away from the Olympics, we need to show them the Britain that doesn't destroy, but that builds; that doesn't give up but stands up; that doesn't look back, but always forwards."

Tourism is a major industry in Britain, contributing £90 billion (102 billion euros, $145 billion) to the economy and representing 4.4 percent of jobs, according to official figures.

Cameron's government wants to build on the Olympic Games to increase this, and is planning a £100 million marketing campaign to attract an extra four million visitors to Britain by 2016.

But Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), said that it was exactly because of the Olympics that so many people have been watching the capital's problems with horror.

"The riots could not come at a worse time for the capital," he said.

"With the Olympics only a year away, the eyes of the world were already turning to London and unfortunately the events of the last few days are what international audiences have seen."

However, many visitors to London this week appeared unfazed by the violence, which occurred largely in the suburbs, away from the main tourist hotspots, and tourism bodies insisted that it would not have a major impact.

"I haven't changed any of my plans because of the riots. I saw the scenes of violence on the television but I also saw nothing happened in the tourist centre," said Pierre Peeters, 55, a Belgian who was visiting Buckingham Palace.

"My daughter who stayed in Belgium... was a little bit worried but I was able to reassure her," he told AFP.

A survey by the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) found hotels in London were largely unaffected, with just 330 cancellations made by Thursday for the following week, out of a total 38,000 rooms filled on one day this week.

ETOA chief executive Tom Jenkins said this was partly because the riots took place in "comparatively anonymous locations", explaining: "No major landmarks and no significant numbers of tourists have been caught up in the trouble.

"Second, such riots occur nearly everywhere. Paris, Madrid, Athens, Los Angeles, Moscow and Bangkok have all experienced rioting and looting."

He also noted that after the first two nights, where rioters appeared to have the streets to themselves, Cameron acted decisively by deploying 10,000 extra police in London.

VisitBritain, which promotes tourism in Britain, agreed that most visitors would not be put off from visiting the country this summer.

"Britain has a strong and positive image overseas and we hope these incidents will be short-lived and that inbound tourism will show its customary resilience," said a spokeswoman, Patricia Yates.

© 2011 AFP

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