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London tourists shrug off terrorism fears

Chu Jeong Woo and his tour group from South Korea were supposed to visit Britain’s Houses of Parliament on Thursday. But with the area cordoned off, they had to settle for selfies with the symbol of British democracy — and the scene of Wednesday’s lethal terror attack — as a backdrop.

“Change in plans,” Mr Chu, a student, explained as many in his group snapped pictures of parliament and Big Ben from the far bank of the Thames.

Some flashed peace signs as helicopters whirred overhead and police boats floated past. Asked if he was worried about security, Mr Chu shrugged: “I feel safe.”

The attack, in which the citizens of 11 countries were run over on Westminster Bridge, unfolded at one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.

Kurt Cochran, a Utah man visiting family in the UK and celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary, was killed. His wife, Melissa, was injured. Andreea Cristea, a 29-year old architect from Romania, suffered critical injuries when she tumbled from the bridge and was recovering from brain surgery on Thursday.

Beatriz Gandara, a student from Galicia, across the river from the Palace of Westminster © Joshua Chaffin/FT

Her boyfriend, Andrei Burnaz, was injured in the attack and had planned to propose to her during their visit, according to the country’s UK ambassador, Dan Mihalache. “They were tourists that came to celebrate his birthday — he wanted to propose to her today,” said Mr Mihalache. “They were simply tourists.”

But like Mr Chu, many visitors to London seemed unruffled by the sort of terror attack that has become familiar in western cities in recent years. They also drew comfort from the stoicism of the locals and the professionalism of the police around the city.

“I think we’re used to this now,” said Beatriz Gandara, 25, a student from Galicia, who was watching the scene from across the river with two friends. “People are coming to look, so they’re not scared.”

Cindy Patterson, who was on her way to the airport in Columbus, Ohio when news of the attack broke, said she never thought to cancel her trip. “We had ample opportunity to change our minds and didn’t even consider it,” said Ms Patterson, standing outside Westminster Abbey at the edge of a police cordon on Thursday. “We feel safe being here — we just feel sorry for the British people.”

Some Germans suggested that Brexit, not security, might be a bigger factor in preventing them from visiting London again in the future.

“It depends on the politics of the country,” said Marie-Sophie Guntram, 25, a teacher, who was leading 18 secondary school students from Duisburg, Germany.

German tourists Julia Blundell and Claudia Busch at the entrance to the Horse Guards Parade © Joshua Chaffin/FT

“Honestly, what are you going to do?” she asked, as the teenagers made sandwiches along the south bank of the Thames, just across from parliament. “We talked to them about the facts. We addressed the flags [at half-mast] and the police presence.”

French tourism was particularly shaken after Isis gun attacks in Paris in November 2015. It was just beginning to recover when a man killed 84 people in Nice in July by driving a truck through a crowded promenade. In the second quarter of 2016, overnight hotel stays by foreigners in the Paris area fell 12.9 per cent.

Wouter Geerts, senior travel analyst at Euromonitor International, said short-term impacts were to be expected after terror attacks but the long-term tourism impact in Paris, Berlin, Nice and Istanbul depended on both the government response and the city’s tourism offerings.

Mr Geerts believed London, which welcomed a record 14m international visitors in the first nine months of 2016, would prove resilient, saying: “While there might be a small number of tourists who will postpone their visit to the city, it is unlikely that the impact of this horrendous attack will result in long-term damage to the city’s attractiveness and competitiveness.”

Peel Hunt, a brokerage, lowered its estimates for Merlin Entertainments, operator of such attractions as the London Eye and Madame Tussauds wax museum, stating: “We believe there is a risk of a decline in tourism in London, particularly visits from families, following yesterday’s terrorism attacks in Westminster.”

Martin Hanke, who had come from Bavaria with his wife, hoping, among other things, to watch MPs debate Brexit, seemed untroubled. “We will come back to London next year, I’m sure,” said Mr Hanke, while studying a city map. “It’s a very interesting town.”

Claudia Busch, 31, and Julia Blundell, 34, two friends from Munich, giggled while taking pictures with the mounted guards stationed on Whitehall, at the entrance to Horse Guards Parade. “We don’t really feel insecure,” said Ms Busch, noting the visible presence of police officers throughout the city.

Ms Blundell agreed. “Even yesterday there wasn’t that much we noticed,” she said. “We were in Covent Garden and it was life as normal.”

Via FT