Brian Ferguson: Festivals celebrate another great season – but not all are happy

The city says goodbye to the Festivals for another year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The city says goodbye to the Festivals for another year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Despite experiencing it almost every September for the last 25 years, there is still something strangely soothing about the calm that descends on Edinburgh after its summer festivals pack up.

There is a sense of a return to normality, of the need to recharge the batteries and of the city clicking back into a regular gear again.

The city centre streets undoubtedly lack the excitement and energy of the festivals, which gradually unfold around Edinburgh from the end of May until the International Festival and Fringe explode into life in early August.

But the heart of the city also suddenly felt a lot safer to navigate and began to look a lot tidier after the sea of temporary poster sites and pop-up cafes and bars began to dissipate.

The current relative calm in Edinburgh, which has long since been a year-round tourism destination, will undoubtedly be welcomed by the significant number of people who regarded the festivals as an extended carnival of inconvenience and annoyance. They have, of course, existed as long as the festivals themselves, as anyone who trawls through the archives of this newspaper will discover. Yet the howls of anguish seemed to have grown louder and longer than ever over the last two years.

Much of this has been down to the amplification offered by social media – which is of course also heavily deployed to help spread the buzz on shows and the success of the festivals.

In one camp there have been senior councillors conscious of the need to sell the city to the world, their officials, the city’s PR marketing gurus and the many and varied organisers and promoters of events. In the other, Edinburgh’s eagle-eyed heritage watchdogs, a handful of self-appointed guardians of the city and an army of often-anonymous keyboard warriors.

During the last two summers there has been an undeniable undercurrent of genuine anger and acrimony about the impact of the festivals on the city and its ability to cope with the ever-increasing numbers of visitors flooding in.

This has been reflected by a hardening of stances on the festivals from the main heritage groups and a flurry of negative commentary calling for them to be scaled back or postponed completely for a year in order to restore the balance for people who live and work in Edinburgh.

The debate of the ever-accelerating growth of the festivals, albeit it within a relatively small part of the city centre, has been made decidedly more toxic in the last two years by two hugely contentious, if incredibly complex, issues.

Councillors have generated a lot of headlines about their efforts to introduce a new licensing regime to curb holiday lets and Airbnb operators, as well impose the UK’s first tourist tax.

While both would seem to play well with certain parts of the city’s population, they have also attracted opposition within the tourism industry and neither seems anywhere near winning the approval of the Scottish Government anytime soon. All this has left Edinburgh at a bit of a crossroads over its festivals.

On the one hand, they appear to be in rude health thanks to booming box office figures, particularly for the Fringe, in the face of all the Brexit-related doom and gloom. They could arguably be the saviour of Edinburgh’s economy in the dark times that could lie ahead with Britain departs the EU.

But, privately, there is also an acknowledgement that a rethink of how the city handles the festivals is long overdue. How that will manifest itself by next summer all remain to be seen.