It has been an intriguing few weeks for all those immersed in the world of Edinburgh festivals ahead of the first big event of the summer – tonight’s open gala curtain-raiser at the film festival.
Amid a flurry of programme launches and announcements, there have been under-currents of concern, anxiety and outright anger. While it is never plain-sailing for those in charge of the city’s signature events, the general pattern over the last decade has been of steady growth, despite intense international competition. Yet I have detected unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval hanging over several of the city’s signature events. Worryingly, no single factor is the source of the gathering gloom, more a series of storm clouds which have been coming from different directions and pose the most serious challenges to the city’s international cultural crown that I can recall.
Firstly, there are the concerns from festival organisations and politicians that overseas performers face more difficulties than ever before in getting into the UK – even before Brexit takes effect – which still seem to be at an impasse almost a year after reaching ministerial level at Holyrood and Westminster.
The Edinburgh International Festival, one of the events most at risk from visa issues, has been vocal about repeated cuts to its public funding, warning it is being forced to focus on ‘safe’ shows and established artists.
Then there are the huge challenges presented to the festivals and the city council by their popularity, which has forced up the price of accommodation to eye-watering levels for many, helped fuel the city’s booming Airbnb market and led to the radical plans for road closures in the Old Town, which were revealed this week after more than 18 months in the planning in the biggest shake-up in city centre traffic management for at least a decade.
While Edinburgh still seems a long way short from admitting it has an over-tourism problem, it is notable that the Fringe Society has shelved the language of previous years boasting that it was the world’s biggest arts festival. Yet it is only six months since an official announcement about a £5.8 million funding boost for the festivals highlighted that their combined annual ticket sales outstrip the (men’s) football world cup and are “second only to the Olympic Games”. There are plenty of people railing daily on social media against Edinburgh’s constant boasts about bigger being better when it comes to the festivals, regardless of the impact on the city.
Many of the debates about the effects on its inhabitants are focused on Princes Street Gardens, an oasis of calm in an increasingly bustling city centre for much of the year, but totally transformed for large spells in summer and winter. The city council has an unenviable task in trying to balance the growing demand from event organisers to use the gardens with calls for the two parks to remain sacrosanct.
Producers and promoters are already having to grapple with the reality of staging an all-ticket event, while facing new restrictions aimed at ensuring maximum public access and minimal impact on the gardens.
This week’s surprise announcement of a review of the city’s Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations seems inextricably linked to concerns about their effect on the park, even though it may be 2022 before any new-look events take shape. By then, the rest of the festival landscape in the city could look a lot different than it does now.