“What time does Venice close?” innocent travellers are said to occasionally ask passing locals. The idea that some naive souls appear to think the historic Italian city is actually a most elaborately constructed theme park – rather than a place where people live – sums up the problems associated with the relatively new phenomenon of ‘over-tourism’. One imagines the local shrugging off such a foolish request, prompting the tourist to go in search of their tour guide to complain about the staff. It wasn’t like this at Disneyland.
According to CNN Travel, Venice is not alone. It has put Edinburgh on a list of places around the world that “can no longer cope with their own popularity”. The others include Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and Iceland. Not exactly bad company to be in.
To an extent, it is correct to say the city, as well as other parts of Scotland, have been ‘victims’ of their own success. But we shouldn’t feel too sorry for ourselves because that success is one of the main reasons why unemployment is so low in Scotland’s capital, a place where austerity has not been as severe as many parts of the UK. If not a single tourist had come to visit, the last decade would have been significantly worse. And it isn’t quite true to say that Edinburgh cannot cope with the numbers of tourists. We are coping. The vast majority of visitors have a pleasant experience. The vast majority of locals are perfectly welcoming.
That’s not to say there aren’t any problems. Over the years, the residents of Edinburgh have learned to work around the tourists, to avoid for example the Royal Mile in August if they’re simply trying to get across the city.
But more fundamental concerns have emerged in recent years, like the growth of Airbnb-style properties pushing up the prices of flats and rented accommodation. And the congestion at peak times is greater than ever before.
These are real problems that require real solutions from our political leaders, for the sake of the city’s inhabitants but also the tourist industry itself. If the centre of Edinburgh turns into a giant low-rise hotel, that will damage the appeal of the city, the qualities that make it a must-see place.
It must remain a real city, not one that’s mistaken for a theme park. As we all know, even the most popular theme parks are bleak places in the off-season.