The news that there have been riots in London has flashed round the world. Modern technology may have helped the looters co-ordinate their actions, and it certainly ensured that their work was broadcast from Sao Paulo to Shanghai.
No sound is more obvious than that of breaking glass. No image more jarring and eloquent than a fire-gutted Edwardian building. This is London burning.
But beyond publication of a few standout images, foreign reaction has been muted. Taking a lead from British commentators, some try to draw a political lesson about the economy and spending cuts. Others make racial generalisations. A few stress the criminality of the looters. But many see parallels with their own experience.
In terms of urban living, what we are witnessing is not that unusual. Events like these have occurred in LA, Madrid, Paris and Athens. Those in the UK are abnormal, and thus newsworthy, even this August.
But they have been largely confined to secondary shopping centres in the suburbs. No iconic landmarks have yet been affected. So long as the damage is contained outside of central London, there will be little long-term impact on tourism.
We have been here before. We survived riots in 1981 and 1995. We endured a thirty-year campaign by the IRA, and the terrorist attacks on the underground in 2007. All these events were different, but they shared one thing in common: they had little impact on Londoners or on the long-term demand for London.
ETOA members handle tens of thousands of visitors to London every day. So far none have been caught up in the current problems. London is still one of the safest and most vibrant tourism destinations in the world.
As for any links between this mayhem and the Olympic Games, it can be dismissed out of hand. The Olympics is, overwhelmingly, a domestic event. British people won’t be put off from visiting the Olympics in Stratford because a year earlier shop windows were broken in Hackney. The small proportion of ticket holders that are foreign will not be discouraged either.
The situation is still in flux at time of writing. There are no grounds for complacency. These events have not projected an image of a nation at ease with itself – but then few nations are.
What is most striking about is the restraint shown by the authorities. A Russian commentator advocated “methods used by Muammar al-Qadhafi”. A Polish newspaper expressed surprise at London not having water cannon on stand-by.
The care shown for human life over that of property is deeply impressive: a positive image of a nation’s institutional ability to cope with adversity. We have to isolate this element and make it understood.
Tom Jenkins is executive director of the European Tour Operators Association
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