By Avril Ormsby
LONDON (Reuters) - London businesses who have complained that trade is down because people are staying away from traditional tourist venues because of the Olympics have been told to look to the long-term benefits.
An official campaign encouraging people to avoid London during the Games to enable traffic to run smoothly appears to have succeeded beyond expectations.
Shops in central London and the West End area around Oxford Street are now reporting empty aisles, restaurants are complaining about vacant tables and theatres are saying tourists are absent from auditoriums.
Many locals and tourists appear to have avoided the area, or decided to shop in the new giant Westfield shopping centre at the entrance to the Olympic Park in east London.
"I am well aware that there is some nervousness in the West End, but you have to take a longer-term view of this," Britain's Olympics minister Hugh Robertson told Reuters.
"And I just say gently, if London had been completely congested and nobody had been able to move around that would have been very bad for the London economy for quite some time to come."
Organisers and transport officials were desperate to get people off congested roads so Olympic officials, athletes and VIPs could get to stadiums on time.
They encouraged people to work from home so the creaking transport system could be freed up for sports fans.
But London tourist attractions have complained that visitor numbers are down by up to 35 percent at the peak of their summer high season, when schools are out and many people take their vacations.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson, whose voice has boomed around Underground train stations in a pre-recorded message telling passengers to avoid hotspots during the Games, told Reuters this week the picture was "patchy".
"There will be, and there are already significant benefits, from hosting the Olympics but the trick is going to be to keep up the momentum," he said.
His transport message was toned down mid-week, and instead it had him exhorting people to enjoy all London had to offer.
Businesses doing well from the Olympics include the London Underground, which recorded its highest daily number of journeys on Thursday at 4.3 million, compared with 3.8 million for the same period last year.
John Lewis, Britain's biggest department store group, said its store at Westfield Stratford, which borders the Olympic Park, saw sales double in the week to July 28.
Organisers have also been criticised for blocks of empty seats inside the stadiums despite an apparent insatiable appetite for tickets among the British public.
The gaps have tended to be in accredited areas reserved for members of national Olympic committees, sports federations, athletes, the media and some sponsors.
The London Olympic organising committee (LOCOG) took action in an attempt to free up some of these seats, and on Friday they were rewarded with a 95 percent occupancy rate in accredited areas.
"I think LOCOG have got this absolutely right," Robertson told Reuters. "They have very sensibly tried to release more of those seats in the early rounds to the general public."
The minister said he was opposed to a future shake-up of accredited seating.
"Those photographs (of empty seats) were taken in the early days of competition before the athletes had started getting knocked out and filling them up and all the rest of it," he said. "The moment a problem was identified LOCOG acted very quickly."
(editing by Michael Holden)