LONDON—Stores smashed and looted by rampaging mobs, buildings in flames—the damage was to London and other English cities, but the images were beamed around the world.
Four days of riots have already cost businesses and insurers hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost to Britain’s reputation—and its lucrative tourist trade in the runup to the 2012 Olympic Games—may be incalculable.
London’s historic center, visited by millions of tourists a year, has been almost untouched by the riots which hit a handful of inner-city and suburban areas. That hasn’t stopped images of flaming buildings and shattered shops under headlines like “London’s burning” flashing around the globe.
“People read that there are riots in London, they think people are rioting on Tower Bridge or in front of Parliament,” said Tom Rees, senior travel and tourism analyst at market research firm Mintel.
“The impression people are getting in other countries is that a lawless state existed in London for a few days,” he added. “The impression could be fostered that it’s just not safe, and that’s a tremendous problem for tourism.”
So far there is little hard data, but Rees said there are anecdotal reports about people canceling trips to London.
“I think there is certainly going to be a damaging short-term impact on arrivals,” he said.
Patricia Yates of Visit Britain said tourism businesses had seen “concern from some consumers” but not yet cancelations.
Most tourist attractions have been unaffected by the rioting. Museums, art galleries, and West End theaters have remained open—though several smaller theaters in riot-hit London neighborhoods canceled performances on Tuesday.
The sports industry has been hit, with a soccer match scheduled for Wednesday between England and the Netherlands at London’s Wembley stadium canceled to free up police officers for riot duty. Britain’s soccer authorities said they were in talks with police to see whether this weekend’s season-opening matches of the Premier League could still go ahead in London.
Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association, said the images of riots looked bad, but the disturbances would have little long-term impact on Britain’s resilient tourism industry.
“My members move tens of thousands of visitors in London every day and I haven’t had any reports of anyone being caught up in it,” he said.
“We’ve had major terrorist bombings, we’ve had sustained IRA campaign, we’ve had riots before. London is one of the most vibrant and safest places a tourist could go to. And that remains the case.”