Royal fans give London tourism a bump amid UK economic woes
LONDON — Royal fans have poured into the heart of London to experience the flag-lined roads, pomp-filled processions and, above all, brave a mileslong line for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to bid adieu to Queen Elizabeth II, who died after an unprecedented seven decades on the throne. And while they’re here, they’re packing hotels, restaurants and shops.
Visitors crowding into central London from as far away as the U.S. and India for the historic moment are giving a boost to businesses at a time when the British economy is facing a cost-of-living crisis fueled by the highest inflation in four decades and predictions of a looming recession.
“This is the history, you know, this happens once in the lifetime,” said Kanakkantt Benedict, who was visiting from India with his wife and filed past the queen’s flag-draped coffin this week. “So we became a part of it.”
The pomp and pageantry leading up to the funeral for Britain’s longest-reigning monarch underscored the royal family’s power as a global attraction, from an elaborate military procession for her crown-topped coffin drawing live viewers around the world to piles of flowers filling up Green Park near Buckingham Palace and gift shops hastily churning out souvenirs commemorating the queen’s life as people clamor for mementos.
Hundreds of thousands were expected to pay tribute to the queen in the four days that her body lied in state ahead of her state funeral Monday, pushing up demand for hotel rooms in central London that in some cases have doubled in price.
Hundreds of world leaders, from U.S. President Joe Biden to Japan's emperor and empress, plus their entourages needed places to stay as they arrived for the queen's funeral. So did police officers coming from around Britain to help with security.
Occupancy levels were expected to reach an all-time high of 95%, according to London-based group-booking platform Hotelplanner.com.
“That’s not surprising when you consider that the eyes of the world really are on the capital and the media, dignitaries and members of the public, just like myself, who just want to be part of such a historic occasion,” said Thomas Emanuel, senior director of hotel analytics firm STR.
All 35 rooms at the two-star Corbigoe Hotel in London's Victoria neighborhood, near Buckingham Palace, were booked, duty manager Riaz Badar said.
“Nowadays, rooms are full in this area, not only in our hotel but around all the hotels in this area," Badar said.
On the Thames, the Riverside Cafe that was next to the mileslong, round-the-clock line for people to get a glimpse of the queen’s coffin, has been “extremely busy,” manager Zab Istanik said. He had been opening two hours earlier than normal, at 7 a.m.
“We were busy like this when the Queen Mum passed away in 2002. But it wasn’t as busy as it is ... this week,” Istanik said.
Also on the route, Jason Rich's food stall, Fed By Plants, was doing brisk business selling lentil burgers.
“It’s a long queue," Rich said. “So definitely it had a good boost on the business.”
The U.K. was already an attractive place to visit as demand rebounds for international travel since the COVID-19 pandemic and the weakened pound, especially for American visitors, makes transatlantic travel more affordable.
University professor Chad Broughton, 51, who was visiting London from Chicago with two friends after a long pandemic delay, said their hotel room in the tourist-heavy Covent Garden neighborhood was pricey at 400 pounds ($456) a night.
But the trip to London was unique. “Seeing all these people queued up, seeing the reaction on BBC and just feeling this, you get a sense of how important it is to the people here," he said.
Plus, costs were offset by the currency's fall, friend Josh Walsman said.
“We’ve found everything to be a pretty surprising value,” Walsman, 51-year-old musician, said as they walked by Westminster Hall, where mourners inside paid homage to the queen and tourists outside snapped photos on streets closed to traffic.
Walsman said they went to a Champions League soccer match, had tickets for a play and a dinner reservation at the upscale Cinnamon Club Indian restaurant.
“We’ve been mostly spending our money at pubs,” he said. “The conversion rate has meant that each time a bill comes, it’s like, ‘Oh, I thought it was about 30% more.'”
The pound briefly slumped to a 37-year low against the dollar on Friday after U.K. retail sales volumes slid more than expected in August — a fresh sign of economic weakness.
The British economy is reeling from rising energy prices spurred by Russia’s war in Ukraine, driving the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. The government said it will cap energy bills for households and businesses, but prices are still painfully high. Inflation is the highest in the Group of Seven economies, at 9.9%.
With that backdrop, the money being spent by visitors offered a glimmer of hope.
“Speaking to our hospitality sector, not just our hotels, but restaurants, bars and pubs, they’ve had an awful three years because of this pandemic," London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.
Budget hotel operator Travelodge said it's ordered extra breakfast supplies for its 78 London hotels for Monday, saying it expects many mourners to start their day with a "traditional full English” breakfast. Pub chain JD Wetherspoon says it will keep its pubs in central London open Monday during the queen's funeral.
Some analysts predicted the overall economic boost for the U.K. from the royal mourning period would be limited. That's because it would be offset by supermarkets, retailers, hardware stores and other businesses closing for the funeral Monday, which has been made a public holiday.
However, renewed interest in the royal family could give an extended boost to the travel and tourism industry, said Tim Hentschel, co-founder and CEO of Hotelplanner.com.
“Yes, short term, the bank holiday will probably cut down productivity a little bit," Hentschel said. But “the overall momentum that the U.K. is going to gain from all the tourism that’s going to flock here over the next few days and then over the next few months will far outweigh" the short-term loss.