Edinburgh is now effectively run by tourist industry – Cliff Hague

The idea that Edinburgh City Council exists to serve the citizens who live there may seem quaint, but it is important, writes Cliff Hague.

Tourists pack the Royal Mile during the Festival, bringing in revenue but changing the character of the city (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Tourists pack the Royal Mile during the Festival, bringing in revenue but changing the character of the city (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Tourists pack the Royal Mile during the Festival, bringing in revenue but changing the character of the city (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Edinburgh is braced for the surge in visitors that arrives each August for the Festival. So now is a good time to ask some fundamental questions about what kind of future we want for tourism.

A revamp of Edinburgh’s tourism strategy is under way; it will be launched in six months’ time setting out actions planned for the coming decade. Are the right questions being asked? Are the voices of citizens and residents being heard?

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CNN Travel recently identified Edinburgh, alongside Barcelona, Venice, Rome and Amsterdam as global “hotspots” for “overtourism”. The helter-skelter, sky’s the limit, tourist boom we are living through represents a considerable success not just for the tourist industry, but also its partners, the Scottish Government and our local city council.

Tourism is seen by the Government as Scotland’s most important industry, employing 207,000 people, providing one in 12 of our jobs, though contributing a less impressive six per cent to the national economy. Edinburgh is crucial to Scotland’s tourism. In 2017, the city accounted for 63 per cent of overnight trips by overseas visitors to Scotland, and 45 per cent of all overseas visitor spending in Scotland.

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With a 60/40 per cent split between visits from March-October and the rest of the year, tourism is also less seasonal in Edinburgh than in rural Scotland. Edinburgh’s 2020 tourism strategy sought to increase the number of visitors to the city by a third between 2012 and 2020, from 3.27 million a year to 4.39 million.

By 2016, it was ahead of that target and the “stretch target” was upped to 4.8 million a year. So, simultaneously, Scotland’s tourist industry and the revenues it generates for government are dangerously over-reliant on Edinburgh, but also umbilically tied to the city’s further tourist growth. A policy for tourism in Edinburgh is a policy for tourism in Scotland, and vice versa.

Amidst economic uncertainties about Brexit, government and the industry will cling to the comfort blanket of growing tourism in Edinburgh.

The plunging pound makes Scotland more affordable for international visitors, but Brexit poses problems for tourist businesses, including visa uncertainties and the end of EU-wide free movement in a sector that relies significantly on non-UK EU workers, and has a disproportionate percentage of employees earning below the living wage. In addition, the prolonged and continuing period of austerity has drained the capacity of local councils to maintain, let alone enhance, the public realm and its attractiveness, not just to residents but to visitors also.

Globally, tourism demand is expected to accelerate in the medium term. Therefore, there are good grounds for expecting the number of tourists coming to Edinburgh to continue to increase, and for businesses and government policymakers to seek to attract new visitors, particularly from emerging economies experiencing rapid growth of middle-class incomes and lifestyles.

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A global economic recession may yet blunt the momentum, but this is the lens through which preparation of Edinburgh’s tourism strategy for the next ten years is being viewed. The work is being led by the Edinburgh Tourism Strategy Implementation Group (SIG), which has operated since 2012.

Its members include Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey and councillor Donald Wilson, convenor of the Culture and Communities Committee. Then there are three senior officials – the chief executive, Andrew Kerr; Paul Lawrence, director of place; and Jim Galloway, from economic development.

Apart from the director of the National Galleries, the other eleven members are from Scottish or local tourism and marketing bodies, including Scottish Enterprise, VisitScotland, Edinburgh Airport, and industry organisation the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group. Though its built and natural environment is Edinburgh’s major attraction, there is no official from Edinburgh’s planning department on the SIG, nor any representation of the conservation or community bodies in the city.

Effectively the industry is in charge of making policy for the city, with planning and citizens consigned to near irrelevance. The city council is there as a corporate entity to help tourist businesses to realise their dreams.

A key principle of the SIG is stark: “Decisions by the SIG are made for the benefit of the tourism sector in Edinburgh.” Chaired by the council’s chief executive, SIG declares, without any caveats, that it works by “championing the strategy at a senior level” and “aligning the strategy and member organisations’ activity to be inclusive, complimentary and mutually supportive”.

The idea that the city council exists to represent and serve the citizens, rather than to give unconditional support to some private businesses and investors, may seem quaint. Similarly, the thought that the council, as the local planning authority, has a duty to take decisions in the public interest, respect the multiple heritage designations that apply in central Edinburgh, and refuse permission for inappropriate development, sits uneasily with an absolutist pursuit of growth in tourist numbers and the infrastructure of hotels, transport, events etc that such growth requires.

These concerns about governance and accountability matter since tourism-driven development in Edinburgh has become fiercely contested, just as it has in those other “over-tourism hotspots”. The fate of the old Royal High School and its setting on Calton Hill now rests with Scottish ministers. Will they allow a large hotel to despoil one of Scotland’s most emblematic cultural assets? The planning permission for another large hotel at India Buildings was strongly opposed by the local Old Town community and others dismayed by its impacts on the Central Library. Loss of accommodation to commercial, short-term holiday lettings, and consequent rent increases, is provoking a backlash.

The question that needs to be asked is not “how can we attract as many tourists as possible?” but rather “how can we manage tourism so that it does not destroy our city and communities?”

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Industry advocacy needs to be balanced against evidence of capacity constraints, and a proper heritage assessment that is taken seriously by officials and politicians.

Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association