Edinburgh tourism expert warns of threats to the 'authenticity' of Old Town

One of Edinburgh’s leading tourism experts has warned that the future of the money-spinning industry is at risk over threats to the “authenticity” of the Royal Mile and the Old Town.

Robin Worsnop, founder of tour company Rabbie’s and the outgoing chair of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (ETAG), has raised concerns that the city’s tourism boom could even “disappear” unless its historic heart was safeguarded.

Worsnop was speaking less than a year after the watchdog charged with protecting the city’s World Heritage site warned that the Royal Mile was “losing its character,” at risk of becoming a “tourist ghetto” and in danger of having its appeal destroyed.

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The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust’s dossier highlighted the domination of gift and souvenir shops, a loss of character, dwindling numbers of residents and over commercialisation.

Leading Edinburgh tourism expert warns of threats to the 'authenticity' of the Royal Mile and the Old Town

There have been growing concerns about the impact of the city’s booming tourism sector, which now supports 33,000 jobs and is worth about £1.5 billion, on the Royal Mile due to an exodus of residents, congestion on roads and pavements at peak periods, and growing numbers of souvenir shops.

The number of overnight visitors has soared by almost a third in recent years, to about 4.3 million.

Research commissioned by ETAG has previously warned that “collective intervention” was needed to preserve the fabric and look of historic areas, and protect the quality of life for residents.

Worsnop, who was given the Silver Thistle Award for services to the industry in 2016, said the growth of tourism in Edinburgh had had “detrimental impacts” that needed to be mitigated if the boom was to continue.

He drew a comparison between Edinburgh and the Cornish coastline, saying he had watched a television documentary showing how coastal communities had become unaffordable for people working in fishing due to the growth in the number of holiday homes.

He said: “It struck me that if they were to pack it in then a huge part of the local culture and authenticity of the place would disappear.

“I think there is a sense of this type of thing taking place in the Old Town and it concerns me that if its authenticity disappears then it could signal the demise of Edinburgh as a tourism destination in the long term.”

Worsnop praised the Scottish Government for taking action to clamp down on the number of properties being turned into holiday accommodation for rent via sites such as Airbnb.

He also admitted that although 10,000 tourism jobs had been created over the last 10 years, the industry had “a job to do to win the hearts and minds” of the city’s residents about its benefits.

Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, said: “It is undeniable that the tourism industry is important to Edinburgh, which has been a destination for visitors for over 300 years.

“We would now ask what the legacy is of the tourism industry in Edinburgh and what the tangible benefits are to the city and its communities?”

Terry Levinthal, director of the Cockburn Association, a city-wide heritage organisation, said: “These concerns have been brewing away outwith the tourism sector for a number of years.

“It’s not surprising that those who have reaped the benefits of the expansion of tourism in Edinburgh are perhaps the last to hear about the impacts that has had.

“It’s really welcome that we have reached this point. It’s all about understanding that, unlike many other city centres around the world, which are really just business ghettos, the authenticity of Edinburgh city centre is that people continue to live and work in it.”

A key priority of a new tourism strategy approved by ETAG and the city council is that the city must remain “a living, working city with a reasonable balance between tourism and other economic activity”.

Another key pledge is to “recognise the rights of local residents to live in a city that works well, offers a good standard of living and retains its authentic character”.

Donald Emslie, the former STV boss who has taken over as the chair of ETAG, said: “While tourism is one of Edinburgh’s key success stories, it is important to consider ways that we can strike a balance, ensuring that tourists and residents can coexist in harmony.

“The new Edinburgh Tourism Strategy reflects the need to manage growth responsibly, presenting a significant step change in the approach to tourism.”