Tears for souvenirs on Royal Mile

IT MAY not be the height of the tourist season, with the city emerging from one of the worst winters on record, but there is still a steady stream of visitors strolling up and down the Royal Mile.

The historic street is the heart of the Capital's 1.7 billion-a-year tourism industry, with Edinburgh Castle at its top the city's biggest tourist draw. But just down from the Castle Esplanade sits a very different picture, a scene easily described as a "tourist trap".

Both sides of the street are lined with shops whose wares – ultra-cheap kilts, rugby shirts, socks, novelty Nessie hats and Saltire underwear – are all hanging out for people to see.

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Postcard racks, rows of fridge magnets, stuffed toys in kilts, badges, tartan coasters and clan guides all adorn the shopfronts.

It is here the souvenir industry often decried as "tartan tat" is most plain to see.

But all that could change, with the council suggesting a major shake-up is in store.

As the landlord of just over a third of all the shops on the Royal Mile, it is looking to use its influence to "be more proactive in managing the look and product" available to shoppers.

While the plans are at an early stage, the only option open appears to be to use the lease agreements with its tenants.

That could mean forcing shops that rent from the council to stick to strict guidelines, or refusing to renew their leases.

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The biggest losers in any such move are likely to be the Gold Brothers, whose souvenir shop empire includes five Royal Mile stores leased from the council.

These include two of the biggest emporia on the street, the two Scottish Experience stores, selling everything from cashmere scarves and jumpers to kilt towels, Nessie ornament and, of course, "See You Jimmy" hats. They also lease three more shops under the Gold Brothers name. The family – who have built up a multimillion-pound business – declined to discuss the council's plans.

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It was the same story at the only other tourist gift shop in a building owned by the council, the Real Scot Shop.

Perhaps they feel there is not an issue to discuss – after all, there is a strong argument that in a city which relies so heavily on tourism, there should not be so much concern about having so many shops giving visitors what they want.

A similar scene, with less tartan, can be seen in cities across Europe, but here the complaints about "garish" wares putting off tourists simply won't go away.

One shop owner warned today that local hotels have started warning tourists to stay away from the area because of the "tacky" gift shops – potentially starving other stores of valuable trade.

However, another discount gift shop owner, who asked not to be named, defended their trade.

"The majority of the business comes from young tourists who are on a budget," he said. "They want cheap little souvenirs, and that's what we provide. It is maybe time to say enough is enough, and leave things as they are, but if these businesses can survive then I don't see why the council should get involved."

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While there is clearly a thriving market, many tourists approached by the Evening News said they found the number of souvenir shops off-putting.

Sarah Cook, 29, a land surveyor from North Island, New Zealand said: "I don't think it's exactly what people want to see when they come here.

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"I must admit the last time I was here I bought some sheep-shaped shortbread from one to take home to my family."

Couple Noreen Mewis, 61, and Tony Hailes, 63, were on their second visit to the Capital from their home in the West Midlands, and said they felt the number of gift shops was bad for the area.

"They are not the kind of places we would go to buy gifts to be honest, as it's all just cheap tat," said Noreen.

Mr Hailes added: "It would be better if there were a bigger variety of shops for tourists, especially up here near the Castle, and the displays do take away from the amazing buildings."

One group of young Americans said they hadn't seen anything they liked on the Royal Mile.

"It's pretty surprising that you have these kind of shops just down from something like the Castle," said one.

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Down the Mile, towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, there are fewer gift shops, but they are still highly visible.

Heather Richards, owner of Canongate Crafts and Knitwear, said the brash presentation of the discount stores had helped other businesses in one way.

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"Because there are so many of these shops, it does make those traditional Scottish craft shops that little bit more distinctive, simply because we are so obviously not like them," she said.

Mike Craig, owner of the Unknown Pleasures record shop on the Canongate, was sceptical about the council's plans.

"I think a move to crack down on what retailers sell is pretty Draconian, and from my point of view these stores are a help to the business, as they bring a lot of people into the area," he said.

"I do think there is a need to diversify a little more, however. There are an awful lot of tourist shops, and the problem in this area is we don't have the grocers or supermarkets that can really help the area expand.

"It would be nice to see the council doing something about that, but as far as the tourist shops go, if they are a success then they should be left alone."

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