Edinburgh is in danger of becoming an 'anti-tourist' city, Fringe chief warns

Shona McCarthy insists the Fringe is not to blame for any problems with growing number of visitors to Edinburgh.
Shona McCarthy insists the Fringe is not to blame for any problems with growing number of visitors to Edinburgh.
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Edinburgh is at risk of being seen as ‘anti-tourist’ in the wake of campaigners raising concerns about the impact of festivals and events on the city, the chief executive of the Fringe Society has warned.

Shona McCarthy hit back at critics of what is claimed to be a growing “festivalisation” and “exploitation” of the city centre for major events, describing some of the criticisms that had been raised as “a bit weird”.

She insisted the Fringe should not be held responsible for the management of tourism numbers in the city centre, but warned the city’s welcoming reputation was “seriously in danger” due to an ongoing debate about the impact of the industry.

Born in County Down, in Northern Ireland and appointed chief executive in 2016, Ms McCarthy said the Scottish capital had to be “very careful” about how it was perceived and stressed the importance of Edinburgh remaining “international and outward-looking” in future.

She highlighted that although there were a record 63 countries in the programme, 744 of the 3841 shows due to be staged were being made in Edinburgh, out of 963 Scottish productions.

It has emerged that the number of performers appearing at the event had almost doubled in size in the space of a decade and is set to attract a three million-strong audience for the first time this summer if recent growth trends continue this August.

Ms McCarthy has defended a lucrative new sponsorship deal with whisky giants Diageo, which will see a Johnnie Walker Club Bar created on Princes Street, ahead of its transformation of a former department store into a new visitor attraction next year.

The firm, which has hailed the Fringe as “second only to the Olympics” in terms of ticket sales, will be installing statues of its Johnnie Walker “striding man” logo at locations across the city.

A record 3841 shows will be staged this year - up eight per cent on last year’s tally - with the number of performances up five per cent to almost 60,000, compared to 31,000 in 2008.

The Fringe programme was launched against a growing backdrop of debate about the impact of events and tourism on the historic heart of the city. Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association are among the organisations who have warned the city is at risk of suffering the same over-tourism problems as Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam.

In March, Pete Irvine, one of Scotland’s leading tourism, festival and event experts, warned that Edinburgh was already in the grip of “over-tourism.” A new campaign to “defend” Edinburgh against "exploitation and festivalisation," launched in April, declaring that it had been allowed to become “a city of capital disfigured by exploitation” and a “theme park.”

Ms McCarthy said: “As someone who comes from Northern Ireland, a place that has struggled for tourism, I think we have found ourselves in a weird moment in Edinburgh. We are seriously in danger of being anti-tourist. I would counsel the city to be really careful about that.

“There is always a conflation of the Fringe with over-tourism. This is June and Edinburgh is really busy. It’s a city with a castle with a medieval city and it’s bloody gorgeous. People come all year round.

“The idea that a three-week festival has to take on the responsibility for things that are year-long issues and that the Fringe is responsible for over-tourism in Edinburgh is a bit weird for me.

“It is about better management of tourism in the city rather than having an anti-tourism agenda. I think it’s very important for a city to be international and outward-looking and to have cultural diversity.

"We don’t have a growth agenda, but it’s important to point out our biggest audience growth is in Edinburgh and Scotland.”

The sponsorship deal with Johnnie Walker, the value of which has not been disclosed, was described by the brand as “a celebration of all that is great about Scottish culture.”

Ms McCarthy said: “The Fringe is not a subsidised festival. We have to work with commercial partners in order to make the economics of the festival work and able to provide the services that we provide support artists and the arts to come to Edinburgh."

Oliver Davies, head of marketing and development at the Fringe Society, added: “The important thing to stress about the Johnnie Walker Club Bar is that it will not be an exclusive bar that is only for certain people. It will be open to everyone.”

John Williams, global brand director at Johnnie Walker, said: "“The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the most famous and respected cultural festival in the world and we’re honoured to be part of it.

One of the charms of the festival is how visitors are encouraged to explore new shows and acts and discover new parts of the city, and we’re looking forward to making Johnnie Walker a part of their experience in the heart of Edinburgh this summer.”

Meanwhile Ms McCarthy insisted the Fringe Society was stepping up efforts to reduce the impact of the event on the environment, as it emerged it is still planning to print 350,000 of its official programmes this year. Its own research has found that 80 per cent of ticket-buyers still use the printed guide.

She said: "We have already reduced the print-run of the programme by 45,000 over the last two years and it is our intention to reduce that year on year.

"But the reality is there are still a lot of audience members out there who still want to have a printed programme and have a physical thing in front of them to choose their shows to go to.

"The environment is really important to all of us at the Fringe Society. We have moved all of our own advertising onto digital platforms and we are working hard to encourage digital flyering."