WHY THE TOURISTS STAYED AWAY

Last summer should have been the best tourist season ever for Britain.

There was a royal wedding for those who love the pomp and ceremony of London. For those who have an interest in aviation, there was the biennial air show at Farnborough and for gamesmen, there was the rare appearance of the world championship chess matches.Still, the U.S. tourist was conspicuous by his absence. The British make fun of U.S. tourists, but they still love them. (During World War II, when the Yanks over-ran Britain prior to D-Day, the complaint was that our GI's were over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.)

Much the same criticism surfaced two years ago when there was another invasion of Yanks, drawn to London by the bargains created by a strong dollar and a falling pound. Hotels were jammed, bargain hunters overcrowded the shops, taxicabs were hard to get and Yanks go home graffiti began to appear again.

This year, the situation was the reverse. The Yanks were savaged by the London newspapers for their home-huddling cowardice. Certainly the terrorists did cast a chill over all European tourism - and London, being the most popular destination of all for traveling Americans, felt the 40 percent decline in American tourist traffic more than any city. But there was more to the decline in tourism than just the terrorism fears.

The Economist, which usually has a pretty good handle on this sort of thing, got it only half right when they said the dollar's decline, more than Colonel Khadafy's threats, has probably discouraged the tourists. As a Yank who not only visited London, but braved the odds by flying Air India to do so, I can report that the real problem was not only a 50 percent increase in the value of the pound in the past two years, but also the steep increases in London prices.

A twin/double room early in September at the London Hilton was 128, plus 15 percent value added tax: approximately $220 a night. A genuine American- style hamburger in the same hotel cost more than a steak dinner in the United States.

The gouging extended even to small items: Barclays Bank would graciously exchange U.S. dollars at a $1.57 a pound rate, plus a commission of $1.50 a transaction. Taxi-drivers in London were their usually friendly selves, even to picking out the right amount of their fare from a proffered handful of silver (one pound notes have disappeared in favor of the pound coin). But their prices were at New York's levels - with no bargains to be found in either city.

Theater tickets were up 100 percent over two years ago, although by New York standards they are still a bargain. A matinee performance of H.M.S. Pinafore was 9.50 - about $15, probably the best theater buy in London. For a seat at Cats, still sold out for almost all performances after three years, scalper's prices prevail.

What can be done about the high prices and the weak dollar? Not much, except to adjust the length of the stay to the budget. A planned trip of three weeks has to be cut to two. A two-week trip becomes a ten-day visit. There is no trying to find a cheap hotel in London, or living on a diet of fish and chips. Frugality helps, of course. But what fun is it to plan a trip around trying to cut corners?

And London is a fun town - not only all the shows and the summer's entertainment, but even the prime minister appealing to us Yanks to come back. We miss you. A sentiment echoed almost everywhere this past summer by even the Cockney fruit vendors. At the Farnborough Air Show, the complementary tickets were easier to get than at any such show in recent memory, as were invitations to the aerospace company chalets. There were enough new products to please the expense-account crowd, and enough excitement at the air displays to make the public happy.

While the world championship chess matches might not have been everybody's cup of tea, American spectators were welcomed even there. Senior citizens, as well as juniors, were admitted free. And the grand-master analysis room even featured speakers who spoke as clearly as tour guides.

The challenger and former world champion, Anatoly Karpov, could be seen at first hand, a slender dark-haired, 35-year-old Russian with just the suggestion of a paunch, who struggled unsuccessfully against his aggressive opponent.

The world champion, Gary Kasparov, 23, was born in Baku on the Caspan Sea, and while he may not be the favorite of the Soviet Chess apparatchiks, he is certainly popular with rank-and-file chess fans, Soviet and non-Soviet alike. He plays a bold, imaginative game of chess and in London, where the matches began, he was the odds-on favorite to keep his title.

Even the weather in London this past summer was kind to visitors. It did rain from time to time - with frequent clearing spells, as the Brits say. But never very hard or for long. All in all, it was a good summer for tourism in Britain.

For those who could afford the prices, that is.

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