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Will Games curse leave 'ghost town' London out of the gold rush?

Jim Seida / NBC News

East Londoner Dean Houssein sells coffee, drinks and snacks from the back of a van near the London's Victoria Park, a short train ride from the Olympic Park. He said that during the Games, the area has been "deader than dead."

LONDON – Quiet restaurants, empty sidewalks and spare seats on the subway have left businesses in central London without an Olympic gold rush, despite Britain's medal success -- and have raised new questions about whether the world's largest sporting event brings any economic benefit to host countries.

It is a major concern in Britain, which is still entrenched in double-dip recession even after the construction boom created by the Games.


Attractions including St. Paul's Cathedral and the London Zoo have seen a 40 percent drop in visitors since the opening ceremony on July 27. Dire warnings of travel chaos scared many away, and those who do come are congregating in the shopping mall that abuts the Olympic Park in East London, or inside the bars and opens spaces of the sprawling park itself.

Even small businesses within sight of the landmark 80,000-seater main stadium have seen none of the expected dividend.

East Londoner Dean Houssein, who usually works as a taxi driver, decided to sell coffee, drinks and snacks such as chocolate gold medals from the back of a van near Victoria Park. It seemed like a prime location -- big screens in the park show action from the Games to crowds of thousands and the Olympic Park itself is just a 5-minute train ride away.

"It's been like a f****** ghost town ... deader than dead," Houssein said. "I've never seen the area like this. It's costing me money. It's really not happening. I need to go back to my normal job, I've got bills to pay like everyone else," he said last week.

Asked what the business was called, he replied with a wry smile, "I was thinking of calling it 'Dean the Coffee Machine,' but I'm not selling it. I'm drinking it all myself, getting the shakes."

Full coverage in London 2012: Hosting the Games

Even as authorities warned of major delays and congestion, the Daily Telegraph published a slideshow of deserted stations and sidewalks.

Theater producer Nica Burns told the Evening Standard newspaper that her venues were "bleeding."

"For my six theaters, last week was the worst this year," she said. "I think the Olympics are great — but I feel like I've been the bulls-eye for the archery competition."

Peter Vlachos, a marketing expert at the University of Greenwich, in southeast London, has been surveying local businesses about the impact of the Games. "One word came back: Disaster," he told The Associated Press.

"There are 23,000 people walking past (local shops) in the morning to get to the grounds, and at the end of the day the same 23,000 people rushing back to their hotels," he said.

"The Olympics were sold to the business community as if it was going to be a huge windfall, and it hasn't materialized," he said.

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Big traders are also suffering. Stores on the city's flagship shopping drag, Oxford Street, have seen footfall slump by up to one-fifth.

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"Of all months to see a drop in trade, August is the worst," said Bernard Donohue, chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. "We expected a drop in international visitors -- it's the well-known displacement effect that happens at every Olympic Games -- but we didn’t expect all the domestic visitors to stay away, too."

British Prime Minister David Cameron last week repeated official estimates that London 2012 would bring $20 billion-worth of economic benefits over the next four years, mostly in the form of inward investment urban regeneration – enough to the justify the $14 billion cost of staging the Games.

"That figure is based on somewhat shaky calculations," said Samuel Tombs of London-based analysts Capital Economics, which predicts Britain will fall back into recession within weeks of the closing ceremony.

"There are some short-term benefits, particularly in the service sector, but long-term gains are unproven. We expect modest growth in the third quarter -- partly boosted by Olympic ticket sales which are officially recorded in this quarter -- but our current prediction is that we will see growth shrink again in the fourth quarter."

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'The Olympic Curse'?
Could Britain be the latest victim of "The Olympic Curse" -- a phenomenon that in 1976 left Montreal with a 30-year debt headache?

Jim Seida / NBC News

You can lead the world to London, but you can't make them shop. Pedestrians walk past an Olympic-themed window display in a Tommy Hilfiger store on Regent Street, central London, on Aug. 2.

Athens is estimated to have spent between $15 billion and $32 billion on hosting the 2004 Olympics -- a contributory factor in the country's economic crisis -- and recent pictures show many of the venues lying vacant and abandoned. Research from Oxford University's Saïd Business School concludes that host cities have averaged a 179-percent cost overrun in the past 50 years, although recent Games have seen among the lowest overspends.

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Transit authority Transport for London last week abandoned the use of pre-recorded public announcements, voiced by Mayor Boris Johnson, warning Londoners to plan for an expected visitor boom that never materialized.

The New West End Company, which represents stores in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, is spinning the unexpected quietness as a boon for locals under the slogan 'No tickets needed.' "It's a Londoner's dream at the moment -- they can get around easily and get a table in a good restaurant," said spokesman Jace Tyrell.

The decline in visitor numbers in London could mean that other British tourist hot spots, including Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh, and northwest England's Lake District, see fewer summer visitors.

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Jonathan Denby, head of the Lakes Hospitality Association, told BBC Radio 4: "We get probably 100,000 Japanese tourists during the summer. This year in July and August there are none.

Traveling around traffic-plagued London can be a hassle at the best of times -- never mind during an event such as the Olympic Games. NBCNews.com put the city to the test in a race to the Olympic Park.

"No visitors are coming in from Asia because they couldn't get hotel accommodation in London and they were frightened of all the travel restrictions in London, so they just decided to stay away for the five-week period of the Olympics," he said.

"If you want to know where all the Londoners are, a lot of them are in the Lake District," Denby added.

Forging an Olympic legacy
There have been some winners. The recently opened Westfield shopping mall, through which tens of thousands of spectators walk from Stratford station in order to reach the Olympic Park, became so busy over the weekend that it closed to all except ticket-holders. A worker at The Cow, a bar at the end of the mall overlooking the stadium, said it was making $50,000 a day from food and drink sales.

Jim Seida / NBC News

Thousands of people move through the recently-opened Westfield shopping mall on their way to and from the London Olympic Park on Aug. 2.

In Manchester, one of England's largest cities, more than 100,000 extra visitors have flocked to the central Exchange Square to watch the Olympic action on giant screens, to the delight of local businesses, according to the Manchester Evening News.

For others, it may be too early to judge with Cameron's predicted windfall will come true.

"We thought we might get some extra customers during the Games," said Roger Love, co-owner of London Fields Fitness, which offers personal training and pay-as-you-go classes in East London.

"In fact, not a single extra person has come to us because of the Olympics. At times the local area is as quiet as it was the morning after last year's riots. Having said that, we haven't lost any business, either – and there may be greater interest in sport and fitness longer term. In the park this morning I overhead someone asking their child if they wanted to be a swimmer or a runner, so there could be more future business for us -- and perhaps a real Olympic legacy -- after all."

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