An American tourist in London
Keeping calm after terrorist attacks
Tourists are resilient, but cautious. After the March knife attack outside the British Parliament and the Manchester bombing in May, Bernard Donoghue, director of London’s Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, said that the organization noticed a slight dip in visits to central London attractions. But overall the numbers are strong: an 8 percent increase compared with the same period last year.
“Recovery after the London Bridge attack was within five, six, seven days,” he said. “It hasn’t had a lasting impact.”
Visit London and Visit Britain shared the findings of Forward Keys, which analyzed booking data from this year and 2016. The research company discovered a 19 percent increase in arrivals from the United States to the United Kingdom during the peak travel months of June, July and August.
“London remains a safe city to visit,” said Laura Citron, chief executive of London & Partners, which runs Visit London, “and people should be reassured that there is an increased police and security presence around London and at the city’s visitor attractions.”
After the Manchester attacks, the British government raised the threat level to “critical,” the country’s highest. Four days later, the danger level dropped back to “severe,” the new normal since August 2014. The Armed Response Officers retreated to the background, and the Metropolitan Police Service, whose members mainly wear stab-resistant vests and carry extendable batons, returned as the most visible presence on the streets.
“We have a history of dealing with security issues,” said Donoghue, evoking the troubles with the Irish Republican Army. “The British have a charming, reassuring attitude. We want to live our lives defiantly and deliberately.”
But what about the foreign visitor whose lip is more quivering than stiff? Recently, I crossed the Atlantic to find out if an American in London could keep calm and carry on.
Before setting off, I reached out to International SOS for some safety tips. Should I avoid concert halls, bridges, outdoor markets?
Matt Bradley, a regional security director, reminded me of the greater threats to travelers, such as petty crime, traffic accidents and gastrointestinal revolts. “Terrorism remains a low risk to
travelers,” he said, “but the increase in attacks, especially in Western Europe, has raised the profile of terrorism for all travelers.”
Instead of avoidance, he recommended preparation. “Any location could be a target,” he said, “so knowing how to respond in case of an incident is the most important concept.” This means:.
● Identify a safe location, such as a nearby hotel, where you can seek cover in the event of an attack.
● Keep your phone fully charged, and bring a battery pack as backup.
● Carry a minimal number of items when out exploring.
● Assemble a list of emergency contacts, such as phone numbers for the embassy, your hotel, insurance company and family members.
● For official information, follow the social media accounts of local police and other emergency service providers.
● Remain calm.
“The ability to think clearly is key to responding to an incident,” Bradley said.
Mobs of people are inevitable during London’s peak summer tourist season. Expect longer queues at top attractions due to enhanced security measures. “People are prepared to show their bags,” Donoghue said, “and are readily expecting it and feeling reassured.”
After the Manchester attack, Kensington Palace amped up bag searches. Before, the royal residence required guests to check oversized carriers and deep backpacks. Now the staff inspects all totes at every entry point, including the Palace Cafe.
At the Tower of London, a man squeezed the bottom of my bag and briefly gazed inside it. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, the guard shined a flashlight into its dark recesses. To access Hutong restaurant on the 33rd floor of the Shard, I had to walk
through a metal detector and send my bag through an X-ray machine.
The heaviest security check was at the O2, the concert venue and dining destination. All visitors are funneled through one door surrounded by a forest of security guards. Machines X-rayed people and things. On the other side of the detector, I was greeted by the snuffling nose of a bomb-sniffing English springer spaniel.
As I zigzagged my way around London, I heard the birdsong of American accents and not one impatient chirp about the security checks. Outside the Tower of London, I met a group of Maryland high-schoolers relaxing during a brief break in their hectic four-country itinerary.
Their company, EF Educational Tours, had told the nearly 40 participants that they could opt out of any attractions they didn’t feel comfortable visiting. The operator also scotched all travel by Tube, transporting students, parents and teachers by coach instead.
The attacks aren’t crimping Princess Diana’s style; the Kensington Palace exhibit, “Diana: Her Fashion Story,” is sold out through early August. Nor have they silenced Pink Floyd. Since mid-May, the Victoria and Albert Museum has sold more than 155,000 tickets to the “Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains” show, which closes Oct. 1.
Recently the V&A unveiled the Exhibition Road Quarter, an extension with a porcelain-tiled courtyard, cafe, visitors’ center, gallery and gift shop. The new entrance, once a forbidding stone gate, draws in pedestrians along Exhibition Road, a cultural thoroughfare with science and natural history
museums and academic centers.
“It wasn’t a welcoming face to the space,” Lucy Hawes, a press officer with the museum, said. Now, guests step through a big, gaptoothed smile.
It was easy to distance myself from recent events. Staring at the royal jewels inside the Tower of London, I thought about whether the Imperial State Crown gives Queen Elizabeth II a headache. I wondered if the wool tweed suit Princess Diana wore on her honeymoon was hot and itchy. I lost myself in the music of Pink Floyd and loudly murmured a song or two while inside the headphone bubble.
“You can tell the Americans,” said my friend Tim Wilson from Newcastle, a retired police officer. “They move their heads to the music. The English would never do that, unless no one was looking.”
But I couldn’t escape for long. I felt a sense of responsibility to reflect on the attacks and offer my sympathies to the victims, even if there were no ears to receive my words.
Donoghue told me that foreign and domestic visitors were approaching tourist information centers to share their grief and express solidarity with the residents of London and Manchester. He suggested that I walk over London Bridge and venture into Borough Market, a honeycomb of food purveyors and pubs. “It taps into a great well of feeling,” he said.
One evening I joined the flow of commuters traversing the expanse over the Thames. As they continued onward to their homes or happy hours, I stopped at a shrine to the victims.
Friends and family members had taped photos and messages onto the wall and placed candles, flowers and flags on the ground. Several people had left skateboards, a tribute to Ignacio Echeverría, the Spaniard who had attempted to rescue a woman by fending off a terrorist with his skateboard.
“Hope you are skating up there in the clouds,” one note read.
At the terminus, an illuminated board urged anyone with information about the attack to call the hotline. Signs in storefront windows broadcast their love and support of the neighborhood and shared websites accepting donations for the victims. Restaurants advertised discounts to first responders.
In my hotel lobby, I searched the faces—American business executives, Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan, Adele concertgoers—for Tim. We set off for a day of sightseeing, with a side of law enforcement.
Not counting Tim, I had only seen four police officers, and no weapons, since arriving three days earlier. By comparison, on a recent trip to New York, as soon as I arrived in Penn Station I experienced a full assault of officers slinging guns as large as elephant trunks. “We’re covert,” he said, “not overt.”
On our stroll to the V&A Museum, we passed a few officers, all on foot, assisting an injured woman. Tim explained that the police operate as mobile units and drop into emergencies as needed.
Not far from the museum, a police car had pulled over a Mercedes convertible. Several Middle Eastern men holding Selfridges shopping bags waited on the curb while an officer inspected the trunk. Most likely, Tim said, the men had bought the car during their visit to London and had not purchased insurance. The police would impound the car and the men would return home, abandoning the luxury vehicle.
Not far from my hotel in Kensington, we ventured into the Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood. A concierge had told me that we could see the remnants of Grenfell Tower, the public housing building consumed by fire in mid-June. But the trees obstructed our view. Tim pointed out the cameras installed outside a shopping center. He said they would deter any troublemakers.
“The police are right on the ball, and security is better than ever with CCTV,” he said. “Everything fits together in the bigger picture.”
We boarded the Tube to the Notting Hill Gate station, where we would part ways. As we rode the escalator from the depths of the Underground and followed one of its tentacled arms to my platform, Tim asked me, “Do you feel safe?”
I said I did, but I didn’t believe it until several minutes later. On the train, the cars suddenly stopped. No one peered anxiously out the window or shifted in their seats.
I waited several minutes before the conductor’s voice came over the PA. In a pleasant lilt, he apologized for the inconvenience and informed us that he was looking into the matter. He quickly returned with the cause of the delay. Congestion, just as he suspected.
Yes, Tim, I feel safe.