Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh, admitted the PR battle over the benefits the industry brings to the city had been lost in the face of “spectacular” successes.
He accused critics of the industry of wanting the Scottish capital “preserved in aspic” and instead suggested the “Disneyfication” of Edinburgh’s tourism industry would not be a bad thing.
Mr Robertson suggested “everybody hates a tourist” had almost become the strapline of the city due to the chorus of complaining.
Addressing industry leaders at the Balmoral Hotel, Mr Robertson admitted Edinburgh had to learn from other cities on how to “manage tourism better” and demonstrate that the industry was not on a “slide to crass commercialism”.
But he said the city was being held back by “wearing negativity” by commentators, politicians and heritage bodies about the impact of the industry on local residents.
Visitors to Edinburgh, which has 35,000 tourism jobs, have soared by more than half a million in the past five years, while spending has soared from £1.01 billion to £1.31bn.
However, there are mounting concerns from heritage groups, environmentalists, politicians and community groups the city is suffering from “over-tourism”. The impact of concerts in Princes Street Gardens, levels of congestion on roads and pavements, new hotel developments and growing numbers of properties being let out via Airbnb have all been cited.
Mr Robertson said: “The word ‘Disneyfication’ has been bandied about as a critique of the way Edinburgh is headed.
“Having been in Disneyland this year with my family, I’m not so sure Disneyfication is a bad thing. They’ve invested in their sites, they provide thousand of jobs, their staff provide a fantastic experience and they’re extremely profitable.
“It’ll never catch on here. Everybody hates a tourist. Those that rail against ‘Disneyfication’ and are generally down on Edinburgh’s increasing popularity seem to want us to be preserved in aspic.
“None of us want to live in a theme park, but with a better conversation and smarter thinking we can decide on the right balance – a vibrant, modern city that conserves and celebrates its heritage. That looks forward, but understands where it’s come from.
“How have we allowed others to push the tourism bad narrative and lose the battle of demonstrating the benefits that tourism brings?”
Edinburgh World Heritage director Adam Wilkinson said: “We’re committed to the concept of sustainable tourism and to supporting the industry in understanding how it can respect the needs of residents, without whom the city centre would indeed become a theme park preserved in aspic.
“We’ll be supporting the council as it renews the city’s tourism strategy for the coming years and looks to learn how other cities are managing the balance of residents, businesses and visitors.”