Why London Wants Asian Tourists at the Olympics
Good news for London’s Olympics this month – there are signs that the big PR push is actually having an effect. According to a Deloitte survey published on May 24, 80 percent of respondents from China and India said Games publicity had made them more likely to visit Britain, while 63 percent and 60 percent of each group respectively said they were more likely to buy British products.
These figures must be sweet music to Games organizers, who swear that Olympics will help kick Britain out of recession, despite their massive cost to taxpayers. Especially welcome is their suggestion that stay-at-home viewers may get caught up in games euphoria and start buying British as well. Increased tourism would be welcome (though it runs counter to dire predictions from the travel industry), but if Olympic exposure coaxes Asian consumers into buying more Burberry check, and maybe even the odd Jaguar, it could turn Britain’s as yet wary perception of the Games around completely.
Deloitte’s survey also partially answers doubters (myself included) who have been wondering what London can gain from its Olympic exposure when it already has such a high global profile. While the city may have a clear identity in Europe and the Anglosphere, for most Chinese, London remains a far-flung place with which they have relatively few ties either by culture or migration. The Olympics give the city an ideal platform to woo the world's fastest growing travel market.
Indians, by contrast, frequently have intimate connections with London and the United Kingdom – ten percent of residents in London’s Olympic host borough of Newham, for example, are of Indian origin, while a shared language and history keep relations close if not always smooth. High levels of Olympic enthusiasm in India could possibly be explained by the high profile role Indians have played in London’s Olympic developments. The Orbit Tower, the Olympic Park’s most discussed feature to date, was bankrolled by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and designed by Mumbai-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor.
In comparison to Chinese and Indian enthusiasm, American levels of interest in the games have been relatively low (not, I hope, because a few of them have been reading this column), with only 20 percent stating that Olympic publicity had made them more likely to buy British. This restraint could well be due to Britain’s already relatively high profile in the United States – after the extensive coverage Britain’s much lampooned “Cool Britannia” trend in the late 90s, campaigns promoting the country in America have struggled to pull much that is new out of the hat.
But with a recession-hit London more in need of cash than cultural prestige, East Asian visitors may actually be the most desirable group to target. "Shopping is a key feature for Chinese visitors to London, with China becoming the world’s largest purchasing power for luxury goods on holiday," says Gordon Innes, CEO of city tourism promoters London & Partners. This contrasts with the typical preferences of American visitors. As Innes notes "affluent US visitors spend more on memorable experiences as opposed to material things, with this being the main source of their personal satisfaction and happiness."
So could there be a major shift going on? Until recently, London’s international self-presentation as a city blending (partly affected) traditionalism with a manageably raw edge has largely had its eye on attracting Americans. Now it seems that London, like anyone else chasing emerging markets, is increasingly looking East rather than West.
Top image: A woman combs the hair of a mannequin in a shop window in Mayfair, London May 21, 2012. (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)