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It's all been a bit quiet around here. I might have taken a close look at the Dieudonné row, with the added dimension of Nicolas Anelka's goalscoring gesture, or the Hollande-Trierweiler-Gayet triangle and the double, triple and quadruple standards we've seen. But since I was not writing about either professionally, both passed me by in terms of Salut! Here's a look at the current war of numbers between London and Paris ...
Zut alors! In the travel industry’s tale of two cities, an unthinkable event has French hackles rising and British pride bursting: London has overtaken Paris as the world’s most popular city among tourists.
The British capital’s claim to supremacy depends on interpretations of different sets of statistics.
But the conclusion that London comes out on top is not the product of a wicked Anglo-Saxon media plot driven by centuries of cross-Channel rivalry. It was in the columns of the impeccably Gaullist French daily newspaper Le Figaro that news of a peacetime Fall of Paris appeared.
Boosted by the so-called “Olympic effect”, the lingering benefits of London’s successful staging of the 2012 Games, the number of visitors was said to have risen above 16 million last year.
Official figures reveal a remarkable coup for the business associated with tourism; London and Partners, the city’s promotional agency, indicated that one year after the Olympics, international visitors in the summer of last year alone spent more than £3.37 billion on shopping, hotels, restaurants and visits, a 5 per cent year-on-year increase.
Record crowds, Le Figaro reported, had “jostled in the halls of the British Museum, London’s leading attraction, the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. They flew in the cabins of the London Eye or walked the dark corridors of the Tower of London”.
With Paris attracting slightly fewer people – 15.9 million, although this was shown as a 2012 tally – the paper declared the city of romance and light to have been “dethroned”, Bangkok and New York taking third and fourth places, according to the French report.
Anxious not to appear triumphalist, London officials refuse to present their own achievements in the context of an ascendancy over Paris or any other city. And Paris has been quick to retort that because the only comparable figures so far available are those for 2012, the French capital remains in first place “at this stage”.
The evidence is contradictory. In 2011, MasterCard’s league table for international spending in world cities has London top on US$25.6bn with Paris and New York level on $20.3bn ahead of Bangkok, some way behind with $14.4bn. Dubai was the only Middle East city to make the top 20, with a spend of $7.8bn although Istanbul, which prides itself on its twin European and Asian identities, took 12th place with $10.2bn.
Two years later, however, the same US credit and debit card supplier used a different test – top destination cities according to the amounts spent by overnight foreign visitors – that had Bangkok top after two years of robust growth, marginally ahead of London ($15.98bn against $15.96bn), with Paris third and Dubai seventh.
The Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of JPMorgan Chase and the Brookings Institution, a thinktank based in Washington, compared four surveys of European cities’ overall economic performance in 2012. London was top on aggregate, Paris second.
Another French newspaper, Le Parisien, talked of a “war of numbers” between the two capitals and pointed out that reports of London overtaking Paris were hotly contested.
But it conceded London’s appeal had grown for a variety of reasons: the birth of a son, George, to Prince William, the second in line to the British throne; the London Eye big wheel and the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum adding to such traditional attractions as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.
“And besides,” the paper added, “for once the weather did no harm, good throughout the summer.” Tourism is now more economically important, it said, than the “famous City of London” financial centre operations.
Paris city hall challenged the notion of London as the world leader, saying the most recent consolidated figures, for 2012, showed Paris still ahead, with 29 million visitors of all nationalities, French included, against London’s 27.6 million. In a statement, it stressed that did not take account of Disneyland Paris or the palace of Versailles, both of which are outside the city.
Some French political figures have never quite forgiven London for beating Paris to the right to host the 2012 Olympics, even suggesting irregular lobbying tactics by Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, and officials.
The legacy of the games was emphasised by London and Partners as it welcomed the prospect that final figures for 2013 would confirm a record-breaking year.
“Hosting the Olympics has given London a massive boost on the world stage, with huge numbers of international visitors flocking to the city,” it said. The findings of Britain’s office for national statistics (ONS) showed that between July-September last year, 4.9 million people – the highest number recorded – had visited the capital.
In the first nine months of the year, the total of 12.8 million visitors from overseas represented an increase of 12 per cent compared with 2012. This indicates significantly faster growth than the 5.2 per cent claimed by Paris up to the end of October.
But London’s outspoken mayor, Boris Johnson, has for once been a model of diplomacy, dwelling only on his city’s achievements without gloating about superiority over Paris.
“With so many fascinating museums, the best theatre scene in the world, more green space than any other European city, numerous top sporting venues, a low crime rate and much else besides, it is no wonder that people from all over the globe are flocking to London in record numbers,” he said recently.
“These incredible figures prove that London is without doubt the greatest city on the planet.”
* See how The National treated my story: http://www.thenational.ae/business/travel-tourism/london-or-paris-which-is-tops-in-world-tourism As is often the case with articles I cover for the business pages, there was a secondary item. It follows now...
Contrary to my fond belief, the photo of the Paris skyline was not taken by me from the Telegraph flat on the rue de Rivoli but by Bill Taylor along the road at the Hotel Meurice, which he was presumably able to afford ...
London owes its success in part to strong and, by some analyses, growing interest from the Middle East, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The rest of Europe and North America continue to be key areas from which visitors to Britain start their journeys. But, along with people from China and India, residents of Arabian Gulf nations are also looking to London as an attractive destination.
London and Partners, the agency responsible for promoting Britain’s capital, cites a 12-month period between October 2012 and September during which visits from Saudi Arabia rose by 27 per cent compared with the same period a year earlier. Visits from the UAE were up 10 per cent.
Britain’s official statistical service, the office for national statistics (ONS), calculates the number of visits from the UAE to the United Kingdom as a whole as 260,000 for the period.
Confirmation of percentage changes for London was not available from the ONS but was supported in data from the UK national tourism agency, VisitBritain.
The French newspaper Le Figaro’s contentious report on London changing places with Paris as the world’s most visited city said the British capital had “exploded” since reversing a trend of decline that lasted until the 1980s.
In 20 years, the population had grown dramatically and was on course to reach 9 million by 2020, 10 million a decade later.
“London did not suffer from the crisis” the paper said, perhaps debatably. “Restaurants are crowded, theatres are sold out, there is no room to sit in cafes. It attracts workers like a magnet from all over Europe and the world. Its growth is twice the average for the UK [and accounts for] half the jobs created nationwide.”
But the analysis is not exclusively positive. Le Figaro noted that with 12.5 per cent of the UK population enjoying 75 per cent greater prosperity than fellow citizens and including 60,000 new millionaires each year, London and its status as the European capital of finance suggested a city-state draining the rest of the country. The capital was also said to be struggling with its own problems of “congested public transport and airports, below-capacity housing and overstretched utilities weighing heavily on the daily lives of inhabitants”.
In terms of tourist appeal London and Paris seem evenly matched, offering a blend of similar and starkly differing attractions. Both have must-visit museums and historical landmarks galore but, while Paris is visually more stunning, London is seen by many – French people included – as livelier, more “cool”.
Yet Paris shows no intention of surrendering its presumption of world leadership.
The Paris city hall insists that early returns show strong visitor figures last year for such sites as the Eiffel Tower and the main museums along the banks of the River Seine. “At this stage, the numbers tend to maintain Paris as the world’s top tourism capital,” it said recently.
Anne Hidalgo, a former French government minister and now a socialist candidate for this year’s Paris mayoral elections, was quoted by the newspaper Libération as describing London as no more than a “Parisian suburb”.
The paper characterised the inter-city rivalry as “almost friendly” and raised doubts about press interpretations of comparative figures. Other media reports of the same comments mentioned Ms Hidalgo’s claims that London had more crime, fewer business start-ups and – echoing the statement from Paris city hall - fewer foreign visitors.
“Competition between the two giant metropolises is all well and good but we have to stick to the truth,” she said.
Ms Hidalgo offered two concessions: Paris pavements were dirtier than London’s – dogs being the main culprits; and Parisians needed to work on their notorious rudeness and try to be “kinder”.
The deputy mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, has been widely quoted in France in his attempts to extol his city’s qualities as saying the image of London had changed because of the Olympics. “People saw a beautiful, open, vibrant city stretching beyond the usual clichés about the queen and Beefeater gin,” he said.
But London-Paris arguments are not settled easily and do not always reflect nationalistic loyalties.
“Paris has the beauty,” says Marie-Hélène Taylor, a Frenchwoman who has lived in both capitals.
“London has soul and personality. But, then, my husband is English and has always preferred Paris.”
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