Edinburgh tourism industry to 'stand up and defend itself' in face of growing criticism

Industry leaders have vowed to lead a fightback against "anti-tourism" sentiment in the city - as they expressed fears over the damage to the city's international reputation from campaign groups with "an axe to grind," the deliberate spreading of misinformation and "alarmist" commentators.

Donald Emslie is the newly-appointed chair of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, the main umbrella body for the industry in the city.
Donald Emslie is the newly-appointed chair of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, the main umbrella body for the industry in the city.

Donald Emslie, the new chair of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, admitted the industry had found growing levels of negativity about tourism in the city "incredibly frustrating" and the recent debate "lacking in balance."

He said there had been a groundswell of opinion within the sector that the tourism industry had to "stand up and defend itself" and take urgent action to "get away" from negative publicity about tourism in Edinburgh and raised fears about damage being done to the entire city's reputation as a welcoming destination for visitors and investors.

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But Mr Emslie, a former chief executive of STV, admitted the industry needed to step up its efforts to properly engage with local residents affected by tourism, admitting this had been "lacking" in recent years, which have seen huge growth in visitor numbers to Edinburgh.

The city's booming tourism sector supports 33,000 jobs and is worth around £1.5 billion to the economy, with the number of overnight visitors soaring by almost a third in recent years, to around 4.3 million

However a new campaign, Citizen, was launched in the city last April to "defend" Edinburgh against overtourism, gentrification and festivalisation." Months later Edinburgh was named one of the world's overtourism hotspots alongside Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam and Venice.

Heritage groups have become increasingly vocal over the impact of the summer and winter festivals on the city centre, with a string of recent controversies flaring over the staging of major events in Princes Street Gardens.

Speaking days after more than 700 people turned up to a public meeting organised by the long-running heritage group the Cockburn Association on the impact of tourism and events on public spaces, Mr Emslie insisted that the city's heritage was one of the main attractions for visitors.

He also mounted a defence of under-fire events company Underbelly after a string of controversies over the city's winter festivals, insisting they had been "hugely successful."

Speaking ahead of the annual Edinburgh Tourism Action Group conference at the Assembly Rooms, Mr Emslie said: "Above everything else, it is so important that Edinburgh continues to be relevant in the tourism market, continues to offer a great experience and is open for business and open to tourists.

"We need to get away from some of these headlines that have been going around the world over the last few weeks .

They really have created a bit of a bad impression about Edinburgh. We need to make sure it is seen as a great destination, offering a great experience and that people want to come here and invest here.

"We have got to counteract the stories that have been developed, a lot of which have not been factual in their accuracy. The industry has found it incredibly frustrating.

"The strongest feedback I have had recently is that we need some balance and that the industry needs to stand up and defend itself. People who are not in favour of tourism have been more vociferous in their opinions. We have to guard against people being alarmist.

"Tourism is a great success and we want it to continue being a huge success. But we also understand that we have to take the residents and citizens of Edinburgh with us and make sure that tourism benefits everybody and not just people who work in the industry or the businesses that are invested in it.

"It's so important that we engage with people and they understand what we are trying to achieve. I think that has been lacking, not just in the last few weeks, but in the last few years."

Mr Emslie said although tourism numbers were expected to rise in Edinburgh in the next few years and several major hotel developments were underway the city had to "guard against complacency".

"Edinburgh has to continue to develop a range of product offerings, We need to be attractive to tourists, offer them a quality of product, level of service and experience that they will want to enjoy.

"There are so many other cities out there that are competing for tourists. We have to make sure Edinburgh is on their agenda. These new hotels that are opening soon are not going to want to lie empty.

"We should expect further growth in tourism in Edinburgh, but it's how we manage that growth, the times of year visitors come, the attractions the city has around the city and distributing the impact of tourism away from the city centre.

"If you look at why people come to Edinburgh a large proportion of them do so because of the city's heritage.These groups want to protect the historic environment of Edinburgh, but so does the tourism sector, because it is so valuable."