Edinburgh must take concerns about over-tourism seriously – Christine Jardine

Adam Hill and Cameron O'Neill, of Pipers Trail, with Nigerian contortionist Aminu Haladu' at last year's Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Adam Hill and Cameron O'Neill, of Pipers Trail, with Nigerian contortionist Aminu Haladu' at last year's Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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Many people in Edinburgh cherish our status as a World Heritage Site and love the special atmosphere of the festivals. There must be a way to ensure tourists are still welcome but residents are not forced out of the city, writes Christine Jardine.

There can be few more beautiful places to live than Edinburgh.

And it doesn’t matter how I arrive home every week, whether it’s by train into Waverly past the castle and Arthur’s Seat, flying in over the Firth of Forth with a view of those three astonishing bridges, or by car, it takes my breath away.

So it is no real surprise that every year, four million visitors come to experience our World Heritage Site.

But now that the Christmas dust has settled, the market is being packed away and the left-overs from the street party have been cleared, perhaps it’s time to stop and think about our future.

What kind of tourist destination do we want Edinburgh to be, and what lessons can we learn from other must-see destinations like New York, Amsterdam and Venice?

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Yes the city has a tourism strategy, but is it the right one and are we happy with it?

We cannot hang about though, there are only a few months before the wonderful madness that is the Edinburgh Festival descends up on us.

I make no apologies for looking forward to those evenings at the Pleasance which have become a staple part of my summer.

Only World Cup and Olympics compare

But even massive fans like me must recognise that by then we need to be sure that we are not in danger of driving a wedge between the people who live here and who want to welcome visitors, and those responsible for delivering the annual injection of economic and cultural benefit.

There can surely be no doubt that for more than 70 years now the Edinburgh Festivals have been precisely that.

And not just for Edinburgh. All of Scotland, and indeed the whole UK, benefits.

Only the Fifa World Cup and the Olympics compare in size and scale.

Last year the Fringe alone attracted a live audience of more than three million to its 59,000 performances, and many of those who start their trip in Edinburgh go on to contribute elsewhere to the £5.5 billion that tourism brings to Scotland’s economy.

But as the annual Christmas holiday celebrations got underway this year, you didn’t have to walk far along Princes Street to find someone who wasn’t happy.

‘Go home tourists’

Whether it was the scale of the Christmas Market, the impact on Princes Street Gardens or the suggestion that residents might somehow have access to their own home restricted, there were complaints everywhere.

It is not the event itself, I kept being told, it’s the fact that the management of it doesn’t seem to take into account the people who live here.

The rumblings of discontent were so loud they reached the ears of the media in London who pounced on the story to fill some of the gap left in the schedules by the general election.

Which is another reason we need to act quickly before there is any damage to our reputation as a welcoming destination.

And we do not need to look far to see exactly what could happen.

Just this week a constituent who works in the travel industry came to see me concerned about what she is seeing and hearing around her.

She had also recently been to Venice, another World Heritage Site which figures high on the bucket list of most travellers.

There she had been left in no doubt that the patience of the residents has long been exhausted by the scale of the year-round tourist invasions.

“Go home tourists” is a polite way of expressing what she saw graffitied on the walls of the floating city.

Cherished World Heritage Site

In fact all across Europe, the population of major tourist destinations like Barcelona, Prague and Amsterdam are beginning to push their local government to pursue a more sustainable, locally friendly approach to managing visitor numbers.

Each of them is coping with fewer visitors per head of their population than we do in Edinburgh, according to a recent UN report which put only Las Vegas, Miami and Dubai ahead of us of the cities assessed.

This week the Scottish Government finally took the long-awaited first step to giving local authorities the power to clamp down on short-term lets where they are causing a shortage of available, and affordable, housing, although we will have to wait until 2021 for the city to have power to offer some respite in areas where that shortage is already a problem.

For those of us who cherish our status as a World Heritage Site, who revel in the special atmosphere of the festivals or simply want to show off our city at its best, we need action to start before then.

We need our city council to take on board what people are trying to tell them.

We love our city. We love its reputation. We want to protect it.

But if we are going to do all of that successfully, we need to do it together. Everybody needs to be on board.

If we don’t do that, we risk losing the very thing that makes Edinburgh so special. Its people.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West