It would have been hard to imagine a scenario in which London, our capital city, was without tourists – that is, until last year (2020). But it is now the second year running that we don’t see any overseas tourists roaming about Central London. I have been cycling to work in St James’s in the City of Westminster this month and it seems very strange that visitors to my adopted city have all but disappeared.
On my way to work, I encounter a number of fellow cyclists who ride in pelotons along the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park. Sometimes I am tempted to get into their slipstream but my rough beast of a bike is no match for their agile wafer-thin road bikes and so I keep a safe distance from them. There is a fragrance hanging in the air emanating from some mysterious flowers that grow around Park Crescent leading to Portland Place. On one side of this road, you find various large national flags flying above the entrances of their respective embassies. Among them, on the facade of the Polish Embassy, is a sole EU flag. At the other end of this road, outside Broadcasting House near Langham Place, I occasionally come across a TV crew filming. A lot of building work took place here two decades ago, so much, in fact, that someone who worked for the BBC told me that the acronym of the broadcaster actually stood for the British Building Corporation rather than the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It is baffling to discover how many businesses have disappeared from Regent Street lately. The Crown Estate that manages the street is doing its best to hide the empty shops by covering their entire windows with colourful posters displaying pithy messages. In the morning, in Regent Street, I ride past Cafe Concerto (the name always reminds me of Manet’s Corner of a Café Concert) and am surprised to see all the empty chairs around the tables on its patio. In the afternoon the cafe is sparsely occupied whereas in pre-pandemic times, accompanying a friend who was visiting London for the first time, I found it impossible to find an empty seat.
During one of my morning commutes, I saw an ad displayed on one of the patchwork digital billboards in Piccadilly Circus – ‘YOU DESERVE SPAIN’. It seemed a far cry in this time of travel restrictions. I remember a haunting photograph I saw during the first London lockdown: the British Monarch gazes down from a giant digital screen at an almost empty Piccadilly Circus, with two perplexed stationary cyclists reading Her Majesty’s message on the board: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.” You couldn’t drift too far from your home in those days, even for the exercise.
When an American guest in the hotel where I worked asked “What exactly is “Piccadilly Circus?”, a colleague at our desk replied that it is like Times Square in New York since both these city centres feature huge digital billboards. The zebra
crossings near Piccadilly have recently been painted over in bold colours and you couldn’t be quite sure whether you were meant to carry on regarding them as pedestrian crossings or whether a completely different protocol was being signified. I subsequently learned that the painting-over was part of a Royal Academy project to bring art to the streets around London’s tourist hotspots for six weeks. However, the tourists who used to throng the Circus are missing right now.
There was a tourist office in Lower Regent Street for many years called the Britain Visitor Centre. I tried to recall its exact location when I cycled down the street but failed to pinpoint it. London has indeed become a city of disappearances. A few people had gathered near the disappeared tourist office in front of a high-end Greek restaurant at 1 Regent Street. I once mentioned to a guest at my hotel that there was a good Greek restaurant in the neighbourhood and he retorted that there is no such thing as a good Greek restaurant, which made me grin. I wasn’t aware of the wide variety of restaurants from Greek to Latin American in London until I started working in the hospitality industry. While roaming on my bike in Central London, I sometimes stumble upon restaurants that I have previously known only by name.
The West End looks sullen without its hordes of enthusiastic tourists. I still haven’t visited some of the major attractions in Central London, even having lived in the town for more than 25 years. One such venue is the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on The Mall. The nearby Admiralty Arch, which stood empty for many years, is being converted into a hotel. We certainly need international tourists to return to London to fill the new hotels that have already opened and that also goes for those in the pipeline.
As a result of the pandemic, Regent Street is trying to reinvent itself. Nowadays, you find banners proclaiming that the street is becoming greener. Some plants – and even trees – have been placed in triangular wooden boxes with soil inside and benches attached to them. I sometimes find men and women sitting on these benches for a quick smoke after a shopping spree and at other times I see a gardener watering the plants with a hosepipe attached to a tank in the back of his van.
We may have to repurpose our city centres if workers don’t return to their offices. The Covid-19 pandemic has caught us off-guard and decimated many businesses in the city that is credited as the capital of the world. The show must go on, particularly in the West End, the entertainment centre of our city. But right now, thanks to short-notice cancellations, ever-changing regulations and dwindling audiences, it’s more a case of The Show Must Go Wrong.