Edinburgh tourism gripes don’t tell the whole story – Roddy Smith

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh
Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh
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You would think that we live in one of the worst places on the planet if you believed some of the chatter on social media and ­elsewhere – Edinburgh City Council in crisis, councillors fighting amongst each other in public and ­private, ­tourism on the rocks, poverty and unemployment growing, ­business floundering, residents in revolt, infrastructure crumbling, shiny new trams and pedestrian roads we can’t afford.

Of course, we do have issues in our wonderful city, but a bit of ­perspective please. We are not ­facing unique challenges, nor ones that are ­insurmountable. This city is a success story whether you use resident ­satisfaction surveys, inward investment, new business start-ups, employment rates, our wonderful heritage, our proximity to water and hills, superb retail and leisure and tourist offering as indicators.

Our council is rightly prioritising very important issues such as social housing, health, education, ­homelessness and fair work and has robust plans to make a crucial ­difference in these areas. We have both a growing and an ageing population that will increase many of these challenges. Let’s think of what we have, not what we want to complain about.

In the main our challenges can be controlled, managed, debated and progressed in a way that helps all residents, businesses and visitors. A strong and vibrant visitor economy will pay significant revenues to our government, both national and local, support our historically low levels of unemployment, support huge investment in our built heritage, and importantly work with the public sector to support many of the challenges we know we have in the city.

Business success and wealth ­creation is not something for ­residents and the council to fear – it is something that needs to be embraced. With a public purse that is shrinking with more demands on it, surely the last thing we would want to do is ­limit business growth. It was pleasing therefore to hear comments in the recent council debate about managing visitor ­numbers based on ­incremental forecasts of ­global growth in the sector.

As a representative of a business organisation looking to promote and support city centre business, as well as a member of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, I have followed with interest the various interventions and contributions to the ‘overtourism’ debate.

Firstly, let’s separate the two ­arguments of ‘overtourism’ and the use of public space. These may ­overlap at Christmas and Hogmanay but not year-round. Undoubtedly there were mistakes in the lead-up to this year’s winter activities, especially with the planning permissions for East Princes Street Gardens. ­However, Underbelly delivered many elements this year in the same way as previous years and the hyperbole and sensationalism of some of the reporting was obviously symptomatic of the strength of feeling of some residents and groups. This needs to be respected and addressed but we need to also look after the views of the more than two and a half million residents and visitors who went to attractions over the festive period.

It is hard to argue with the economic benefits that these festivities bring, but it is equally hard not to take on board genuine concerns that residents have. The further ­consultation that the council will undertake over the next two years may well address some of these issues to the satisfaction of all parties, but it may be problematic.

Edinburgh does not have the ­luxury of large hard-standing squares or easy to adapt streets to host Christmas activities, thus leading to the use of the gardens. These are superb city centre spaces, but there is no easy solution to the issues caused by building structures on grass in the middle of winter. I look forward to this debate and finding a solution.

The Old Town is especially busy for three weeks in August and the industry knows we have a short term let issue which must and is being addressed. However, we have an exceptionally vibrant tourism offer that is driving much of the business growth in the city. While we seek to ensure new visitors, we must work to improve the quality of their experience and limit the environmental impact, all of which is within the city’s new tourism strategy.

I also believe the often quoted ­statistic of 33,000 residents employed in the industry is a huge underestimate, as it does not include the ­supply chain of business throughout the Lothians. Contrary to the belief in some circles, these are not simply ‘low wage’ jobs. They represent jobs and skills across the spectrum of employment opportunities. They also ­represent a great example of inclusion, providing many young people with their first steps on the employment ladder, with many forging successful and lucrative long-term careers in the industry.

We have three five-star hotels and the Diageo visitor centre opening in the next 18 months, all raising the quality of tourism in ­Edinburgh. Tourism may be seen as having a negative impact by some residents, but this negativity must be used to improve what we do, not limit it.

The Edinburgh 2030 Tourism Strategy will be launched next week, and it sets out a balanced approach to ­growing and managing the sector whilst addressing tourism concerns. Speakers from Barcelona and Amsterdam at next week’s ­Edinburgh Tourism Action Group Conference will detail their experiences and the steps they are taking to support ­tourism whilst limiting certain parts of the industry. What they are not doing, nor should our city, is stifling growth in the sector. The council, as key partner to this strategy, will also set out how the partners will support a ­better ­quality of life, ­further reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality, invest in the city, deliver more and better jobs, whilst ­generating income through a ‘tourist tax’ to reinvest in our city and all of its residents.

Tourism is a huge part of Edinburgh’s success in becoming such a thriving and successful city. Let’s work to preserve that thriving economy to ensure that everyone gets the chance of a good (and better) job and can take full advantage of the amazing quality of life our great city has to offer.

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential ­Edinburgh.