Edinburgh Castle visitor numbers threaten to overwhelm site

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A series of new crowd control measures are to be introduced at Edinburgh Castle after its operators admitted it had become overwhelmed at peak periods.

Timed slots for visits will be introduced for the first time as part of a drive to curb congestion problems in and around the attraction.

Tourists gather on the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Tourists gather on the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The government agency responsible for the site will be urging all potential visitors to book in advance this summer, with admission prices hiked for “walk-up” tickets.

Around 18 extra members of staff will be hired to monitor the volume of visitors around the site, including at popular locations like the Crown Jewels exhibition.

Historic Environment Scotland will be warning for the first time that the only way to guarantee entry is to book in advance online.

A new esplanade manager and queuing system will be introduced to try to cut down on congestion around the drawbridge, the only entrance for visitors.

Travel trade operators and cruise liner companies whose guests normally flock to the attraction to start their day out in Edinburgh will instead be urged to overhaul their schedules to bring parties in the afternoons, which are said to be much quieter than the mornings.

The shake-up has been ordered after bosses admitted the visitor experience was “compromised” in the summer when the castle attracted record numbers of visitors. More than 10,000 were recorded on 20 separate occasions last August, helping it to attract nearly 1.8 million visitors for the year for the first time ever.

The castle’s measures have been revealed months after Edinburgh World Heritage warned the city was at risk of suffering the “same fate” as Venice and becoming a “hollow museum shell” due to attractions reaching near capacity and the number of tourists thronging the Old Town. Official reports published by the city council last month raised concerns that roads, pavements and transport networks are struggling to cope with the influx of tourists during peak periods.

Nick Finnigan, executive manager of Edinburgh Castle, said: “When we created the current ticket office inside the castle walls more than a decade ago we were getting something between 900,000 and a million visitors. All the signs are that we’re going to have to manage more than two million visitors in future.

“The castle is designed to keep people out. The fact there is a very narrow entrance as you come in presents massive challenges.

“We’re going to have four time-slots for advance booking and will plan the number of tickets we put online based on our other business with the travel trade.

“We want people to book online. They can still queue up to buy a ticket, but we would say that in the busier periods they may have a very long wait and it will be dearer, as the walk-up price will be going up from £17 to £18.50.

“We’ll be basically saying to people in our marketing campaigns and on social media: ‘If you book online you are guaranteed to get in.’ If we have sold our allocation of advance tickets we will be monitoring the numbers.

“I felt in July and August last year the numbers we had did compromise the visitor experience. We are not actively encouraging more visitors over that period. We want everybody coming to the castle to have a relaxed and enjoyable time.”

Nicholas Hotham, head of external relations at Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “While we welcome the measures being introduced at Edinburgh Castle, we also believe that other measures will need to be introduced to widen the visitor footprint, which is too focused on the area from the High Street to the castle.

“Edinburgh boasts one of the most extensive urban World Heritage Sites in Europe, and we actively urge visitors, and residents, to explore the wonders of Dean Village, Stockbridge, the New Town and Canongate, among other areas. This will result in a deeper appreciation of what is so special about the city and help alleviate problems of overcrowding.”

Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, said: “Scotland’s reputation as a quality destination relies on continued investment and innovation to ensure that current provision meets future demand. It’s fantastic to hear that attractions like Edinburgh Castle are introducing creative new approaches to ensure that visitors continue to have the best experience possible during their time in Scotland’s capital.”

Donald Wilson, culture leader at the council, said: “Edinburgh Castle is the jewel in the capital’s crown and at the top of every visitor’s must-see list. It is critically important that those who plan to visit, can, and that they have a fantastic and memorable experience when they get there.

“Some parts are almost 900 years old and these changes look set to provide a positive visitor experience and help in the continued preservation of our beautiful historic castle.”