New Edinburgh tourism chief begins battle to ‘win hearts and minds’

Donald Emslie.
Donald Emslie.
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Edinburgh’s new tourism figurehead has admitted that the industry needs to “win the hearts and minds” of its residents and that its future growth will need to be more carefully managed in future.

Donald Emslie, who has just been appointed chair of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, said there would be new focus on filling hotel rooms outwith peak periods, spreading visitors around the city more and creating new “experiences” for visitors under a new blueprint for the next decade.

Mr Emslie, a former chief executive of STV and chairman of Edinburgh Zoo and the city’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, signalled a new shift for the sector, which supports around 30,000 jobs, away from a constant focus on growth.

In an exclusive interview, Mr Emslie said there would be a shift in “tone” in a new strategy for the industry, which is about to go out for public consultation.

He admitted that the industry had to address “anti-tourism” sentiments among some residents and ensure that the benefits of the industry were distributed better.

Mr Emslie said a key focus of the ten-year plan would be ensuring Edinburgh remained a world-leading cultural designation.

But he also said he did not see any need for the city to host any more major festivals or events in future given the existing year-round calendar.

Mr Emslie, who has also been on the boards of the Scottish Rugby Union and Scottish Water, was unveiled last week as the new chair of ETAG, to succeed Robin Worsnop, the founder of award-winning tour company Rabbie’s.

He had overseen an increase in visitor numbers of more than half a million in the past five years to 3.85 million, with one in three of them travelling from overseas.

Visitor spending in the city has also soared over the same period, from £1.01 billion to £1.32bn billion.

However there have been growing concerns from heritage bodies about the impact of “over-tourism” in certain areas, particularly in the Old and New Town, and Edinburgh was recently named alongside Amsterdam, Rome, Venice and Barcelona as one of the world’s in a league table of destinations “that can no longer cope with their own popularity.”

New safety measures were introduced in the city centre this summer in the wake of a dossier published at the beginning of last year which warned of increasing problems with “bottlenecks,” the domination of souvenir shops, and a lack of pavement and road space.

An official report on the future of tourism in the city, commissioned by ETAG and published in the run-up to this year’s festivals, said action was needed to help ease the impact of the industry’s “growing pains” amid warnings of the growing risk of a “backlash” from residents.

Mr Emslie said: “The previous tourism strategy for the city was very much focused on growth and was very number-orientated.

“People will see a change in tone in the new strategy. It will recognise the current challenges and that the industry realises there has to be some form of change. It will be more about managing growth in future, rather than just delivering it.

“In common with just about every other city in Europe, tourism is growing in Edinburgh. It needs to be managed across the year and across the city to ensure it is spread out and not only centred on a few parts of the city.

“It is about tourism operators encouraging and incentivising people to come to Edinburgh outside of the peak periods and encouraging them to spread out across the city to avoid the pressure points.

“There is an acknowledgement that an anti-tourism feeling is an issue that we need to deal with and respond to. That will be recognised in the new strategy.”

Mr Emslie said a key aim of the new strategy would be ensuring that “everyone in the city” is able to benefit from the tourism industry in future.

He added: “There is a job to be done at the moment to win the hearts and minds of people in the city.

“Edinburgh is world-renowned for its history and culture. People have it on their map as somewhere to come and see.

“We have a responsibility to manage that, but we also have a responsibility to articulate the benefits of that.

“The industry also has to begin to ask questions and provide answers on how the city benefits from tourism. That has to be its agenda.

“That’s about job creation, skills development and making sure that everyone in the city benefits from tourism in future.

“There is perhaps a view that might not always have been the case in the past.

“Those benefits are definitely there. Would Edinburgh’s theatres, cinemas, museums and galleries and all of the other tourism infrastructure exist without all the visitors that come here? That must be a benefit to everyone who lives and works in the city.

“This is all about ensuring Edinburgh continues to be a world-leading cultural city. We have to articulate the benefits of that more positively, while recognising that there are pressure points.

“If you were in Edinburgh over the August Bank Holiday weekend it was obvious what they were. It was extraordinarily busy in the city.

“The festivals are undoubtedly a good thing to have. They have done an amazing job over the years. They bringing in huge numbers of visitors and a huge amount of wealth to the city.

My own view is that there is already enough going on in Edinburgh throughout the year to attract visitors without adding any more festivals or events.”

Mr Emslie admitted that the industry was expected to face growing challenges due to the downturn in the retail sector, the climate emergency and changes in how holidaymakers are choosing their destinations and what they want to do there.

He added: “The industry is going to come under pressure from a sustainability point of view. Businesses are going be facing new regulations and will have to rise up to the challenge of the climate emergency - consumers are doing to demand it.

“The industry will have to reflect changes in how people are deciding where to go on holiday, how they are going to get there and what they want to do when they are there.

“We are changing from a consumer society. People are going to be looking for new experiences in future.

“That will be a huge challenge for every destination, not just Edinburgh.”