Over-tourism debate is a £1.4 billion question – Roddy Smith

As well as the peak season for visitors, Edinburgh’s August festivals mark the peak season for media coverage ofthe city’s “love/hate” relationship with tourism.

Edinburghs popularity with tourists is important for the whole of Scotland (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

Where 2019 has been different is the unprecedented level of discussion around the pros and cons of the city’s success as a year-round tourism destination, with almost daily headlines, opinion pieces and social media coverage.

What is surprising about this should not be the amount of coverage, the range of views expressed or the intensity of the debate. It is the fact that it has taken so long for Edinburgh to fully wake up to the vital importance and impact of tourism, a key contributor to the city’s economy which very directly and tangibly touches the lives of almost every Edinburgh resident in many positive ways.

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Clearly though, not all tourism impacts are positive and while the success and growth of the sector should be celebrated, the negative impacts and “invisible costs” also need to be clearly identified, prioritised and effectively addressed. The incredible pace and scale of the growth of the short-term letting phenomena is a clear example of that.

Like other cities around the world, Edinburgh initially welcomed short-term letting platforms such as AirBnB as a great opportunity to add capacity, flexibility and choice to the city’s visitor accommodation offer. No-one really predicted how quickly this seemingly benign solution would turn into a substantial challenge, with consequences reaching far beyond the direct impacts on tourism.

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Of course, the tourism sector itself has been very aware of the impact that it has on the city and its residents for many years but has often struggled to make its voice heard. So while the recent interest, debate and discussion may not always make for easy reading, it is to be welcomed as it will help to ensure that, as the new Edinburgh 2030 Tourism Strategy is being developed, it genuinely addresses and balances the needs of residents, businesses and visitors in the future.

The 2030 tourism strategy development process has been underway for some time. Work started in 2018 and has so far included an evidence review and analysis report, a programme of industry and stakeholder consultations, the creation of an international expert advisory panel, the establishment of a City of Edinburgh Council-led Tourism & Communities Working Group and numerous reports and briefings for the council committees and elected members.

This huge amount of work reflects that, from the outset, there has been a clear recognition that Edinburgh’s approach to tourism needs to be fundamentally different in order to ensure that tourism is effectively contributing towards the future ambitions and development needs of the city as a whole.

Going forward, tourism cannot be looked at in isolation. It needs to take consideration of, and be considered as, part of the wider strategic thinking, planning and decision making in the city.

It will be impacted by, and have a major impact on, the biggest issues facing the city, including climate change, tackling poverty and addressing the city’s housing challenges. The council’s far-reaching City Centre Transformation proposals and the ambition to make Edinburgh the data capital of Europe will also form part of that mix.

At the same time, we can’t just look inward and need to recognise that Edinburgh’s tourism sector does not operate in a bubble. Tourism is one of the biggest, fastest-growing and fastest-changing sectors in the world and so it is important that we “lift our heads” and look to the opportunities and challenges that this presents.

Closer to home, we also need to be aware that as the “headline act” for Scottish tourism, delivering over 25 per cent of the country’s visitor spend and attracting 63 per cent of all international visitors, decisions made in Edinburgh will have very real impacts on the rest of the country.

There is a lot at stake, most directly the 34,000 jobs that the £1.4 billion of visitor spend each year supports, not just in core tourism-facing businesses, but throughout the huge business supply chain that delivers essential products and services – from farmers to florists and lawyers to locksmiths. And beyond that, the extent to which the sector delivers many indirect benefits that contribute to Edinburgh being regularly recognised as a great place to live, work, study and invest, as well as visit.

It is essential then that the new strategy is based on robust research and evidence, lessons and best-practise solutions from other destinations and a clear understanding of the future global, national and local trends that will impact on the city and its visitor economy.

It is equally essential that we recognise that the city is not just a place to do business. It is home to over 500,000 people and they should have the opportunity to have their say in the future of their city.

The Edinburgh 2050 Vision project has led the way in providing a platform for engaging residents and building on this; for the first time the draft tourism strategy will be published on the City of Edinburgh’s Consultation Hub later in the year. Ultimately, we all have a shared stake in getting Edinburgh’s future tourism strategy right and ensuring that tourism works for everyone. So all the recent media coverage, social media debate and development work for the new tourism strategy should be welcomed as a reflection of the fact that Edinburgh is finally and fully taking tourism seriously.

Roddy Smith is director of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (Etag)