Coronation gives tourism boost, but UK economy still reeling

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Coronation plates and cups are displayed for sale in a gift shop in London, Monday, April 24, 2023. The May 6 coronation is luring royal fans and far-flung visitors fascinated by the ceremonial spectacle and drama of the monarchy and eager to experience a piece of British history. Tour companies, shops and restaurants are rolling out the red carpet, whether it's a decked-out bus tour of London's top sights boasting high tea or merchandise running from regal to kitschy. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

LONDON – Kelly Curto is taking her first trip outside the U.S., and the die-hard fan of the British royal family is making it the one at the top of her bucket list — heading to London for King Charles III's coronation.

After arriving on May 5, the 44-year-old school bus driver from Long Island and a friend will head to the Mall, the ceremonial avenue to Buckingham Palace where the monarch's pomp-filled procession will pass by the following day.

That's where they plan to spend the night if they can find a good spot to glimpse the gilded horse-drawn state coach, royals and thousands of soldiers filing past — despite splurging on a four-star hotel for their nine-day trip.

“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You get to be part of history," Curto said. "Everybody around the world knows this family. Everybody around the world is going to be watching this coronation — and we get to be a part of that.”

The coronation is luring royal enthusiasts fascinated by the ceremonial spectacle — and drama — of the monarchy and far-flung visitors eager to experience a piece of British history. Tour companies, shops and restaurants are rolling out the red carpet, whether it’s a decked-out bus tour of London’s top sights with high tea or merchandise running from regal to kitschy.

The weekend of events starting May 6 will bring a cash infusion to central London businesses, especially hotels, pubs and restaurants, but it won’t do much for U.K. residents struggling with an economy on the precipice of recession and a cost-of-living crisis that has stirred months of disruptive strikes by workers seeking pay hikes.

For visitors looking to splash out, hotels across London are touting coronation-themed packages, menus and decor.

Those willing to spend an eye-popping 12,995 pounds (over $16,000) can get an overnight stay in the Royal Suite at the five-star Hotel Cafe Royal and a limo ride to the Tower of London for a private tour and viewing of the Crown Jewels.

The Dorchester Hotel, long a favorite with royals and celebrities, concocted a lavish, five-tier coronation cake and put up theater-style draping across its facade to re-create the decorations that it used to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.

Many international visitors are drawn by the idea of a “beautiful fairytale” about “the royals and everything that is around them,” general manager Luca Virgilio said.

“So there’s a lot of love and a lot of interest. And we are sold out already, which is very encouraging,” he said.

The Royal Lancaster London hotel near Hyde Park is serving afternoon tea inspired by Charles’ favorites: roast beef sandwiches, darjeeling tea and damson plum mousse.

The spread features a darjeeling tea cake shaped like crown atop a crimson cushion, while the hotel bar serves a coronation cocktail: a martini with a splash of darjeeling tea, trimmed with gold leaf.

For a different twist, Annie Verhaert, 64, and daughter Claudia Lombaert, 30, from Belgium, boarded a vintage red double-decker bus strung with Union Jack flags for a coronation-themed tour that hits landmarks like Big Ben and Trafalgar Square.

On the way, they sipped tea — using cupholders to prevent spills — and snacked on finger sandwiches and pastries like the “royal scone” from a menu a former royal butler curated for tour operator Brigit’s Bakery.

“We knew the queen all our life,” Verhaert said. “And it’s now the first time we see a change on the throne. So it’s special.”

And souvenirs are in no short supply, including tea towels, socks, dessert plates and other paraphernalia with coronation insignia from the Royal Collection Trust, purveyor of official memorabilia.

Unofficial merchandise also abounds at shops in tourist areas, with Charles' likeness crudely emblazoned on tote bags, coasters and teabag holders or coronation-branded pens, tins of fudge and playing cards offering more upscale options. Even more items show his mother, who died in September after 70 years on the throne, on everything from mugs to bobblehead figures.

Officials have high hopes that the coronation will provide a vital boost to the country’s tourism industry, which is still reeling from two years of COVID-19 shutdowns. The U.K. received some 29.7 million visits last year, still nearly a third below 2019.

“Events like this really kick-start the recovery, don’t they? And they put Britain on the world stage again,” said Patricia Yates, chief executive of the VisitBritain tourism board.

Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations last year brought in an extra 2.6 million visitors to London, she said, and Charles’ coronation is expected to have a similar effect.

History, heritage and the royals are the biggest draw for international tourists, Yates said, and royal pageantry is a particular magnet for Americans, who are driving the U.K.’s tourism recovery.

“We can see a 10% increase in flight bookings through May from the America market,” she said. “The big question mark is, of course, China, which was our second-most-valuable market and still not coming back quite in the numbers we would like to see.”

The coronation's wider impact on Britain’s economy is less clear.

Tax revenue will get a boost from extra retail spending for parties nationwide, including booze sales that have hefty alcohol duties. Pubs will be allowed to stay open two hours longer May 5-6.

However, organizing the coronation has a huge cost that some reports estimate could run as high as 100 milllion pounds, and an extra public holiday on May 8 means a lost day of productivity.

So while the hospitality industry benefits, “the flipside of that is that by giving everybody an extra day off, you’re taking quite a bit of output out of the economy in quite a lot of other sectors,” said Andrew Goodwin of Oxford Economics.

The British economy has been essentially stagnant since the start of last year as decades-high inflation squeezes households and small businesses. The International Monetary Fund expects U.K. output to shrink by the most of any major economy this year.

To keep up with the soaring cost of living, nurses, teachers, postal workers and others have been striking for higher wages. Security guards at Heathrow Airport plan to walk off the job starting May 5, threatening to disrupt travel for the coronation.

“There’s a lot of headwinds that the economy has to battle,” Goodwin said.

Brand Finance says the monarchy boosts the U.K. economy to the tune of 500 million pounds a year, more than making up for the estimated 350 million pounds it costs taxpayers.

However, that boon is less than a third of the London-based consultancy's 2017 forecast. CEO David Haigh blamed the plunge in value on a "disastrous six years” for the royal family, including a scandal involving Prince Andrew, a string of gaffes by minor royals and Harry and Meghan falling out with the family.

Still, “going forward, we still believe that the monarchy generates more in terms of revenue for the U.K. economy than it costs," Haigh said.

The royals certainly are drawing Curto, who will stay with a friend at the Wellington Blue Orchid hotel in London at a cost of about 3,000 pounds.

They plan to visit Hampton Court Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and make day trips to Oxford and the Cotswolds. It won’t be cheap, but Curto won't be pinching pence.

“I plan on enjoying myself without limits," she said. "I know London is an expensive city, so I’m prepared to spend a fair amount.”

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AP reporter Sylvia Hui in London contributed.