Brian Ferguson: Like it or not, tourism is vital to Edinburgh

On a sunny spring afternoon all appeared oddly quiet in the streets of Edinburgh's New Town. Only a handful of weekend shoppers and tourists were wandering around on the historic thoroughfares leading downhill from the throngs on Princes Street and George Street.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
Tourism is the lifeblood of Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow

But it was a different story in St Stephen’s Street, one of the most historic, fascinating and cosmopolitan thoroughfares in Stockbridge. Hundreds of music fans who have descended on its trendy cafes, bars and shops for Record Store Day are creating the kind of buzz rarely seen in Edinburgh outwith its peak festivals period.

It was hard to believe that on my previous visit to Stockbridge just a few days earlier I had sat through one of the most dispiriting and doom-laden events I can recall.

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I should have known better than to venture anywhere near a pre-election hustings meeting. But the event was not only a rare chance to see inside the former St Stephen’s Church before it is turned into a new performing arts centre, but an opportunity to take the temperature of public opinion on how the historic heart of Edinburgh is being maintained and preserved.

All credit to Edinburgh World Heritage, the trust charged with promoting and protecting the UNESCO designation for the Old and New Towns, for instigating the city’s first “heritage hustings”. Not so long ago the idea of this organisation, a rather timid and anonymous beast previously, creating an event which put election candidates in the modern-day equivalent of stocks, would have been unheard of.

But Edinburgh World Heritage has increasingly bared its teeth in the last few years, as it has belatedly fought back in the face of a string of new developments which it believes are changing the city centre for the worse.

Nonetheless, I doubt whether the charity, or the six council candidates who took to the stage, had any idea of the explosive mixture of anger and hostility they would be confronted with.

Right in the firing-line were some of those flagship developments, like those emerging on St Andrew Square and on the site of the old St James Centre, or the bitterly-contested scheme to turn the former Royal High School into a luxury hotel. Attempts by some candidates to distance themselves from previous decisions were treated with outright derision. But, more worryingly for those looking to stand for election was the undisguised contempt for the tourism sector – one of the undoubted life bloods of the city’s economy in modern times.

I was taken aback by the strength of feeling over the growing concentration of budget hotels and scepticism over the oft-repeated claim Edinburgh needs thousands of new hotel beds to keep pace with its rivals. Pledges of action to spread out new hotels across the city, clamp down on ”party flats” and properly regulate for Airbnb operators were met with wave after wave of barracking and heckling – without the need to wield a microphone. All this in one of the most well-heeled parts of the city.

Edinburgh’s tourism industry has long outperformed other parts of the UK over the last 20 years. Turning off the tap of tourism is the last thing the city needs when its economy will have to grapple with the impact of Brexit in the next couple of years. Whoever inherits control of Edinburgh City Council after next month’s elections will have plenty challenges on their plate. But making a convincing case to those who live and work in the city for developing and maintaining tourism could be one of the toughest.