Edinburgh’s tourism industry urged to act to avoid ‘backlash’

An official report on the future of tourism in Edinburgh has urged industry leaders to encourage visitors to leave the city to help ease the impact of its “growing pains” amid warnings it is running the risk of a “backlash” from residents.
Picture: Ian Rutherford.Picture: Ian Rutherford.
Picture: Ian Rutherford.

The new dossier calls for ”concerted action” to extend the “footprint” of the tourism industry outwith the Old and New Towns, warning that space in its most crowded areas – including Princes Street, the High Street and North Bridge – is regularly unable to meet demand.

Research for the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, the main independent industry body in the city, said “collective intervention” was needed to preserve the fabric and look of historic areas, and protect the quality of life there.

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It has been published weeks after councillors agreed a new tourism policy, which includes commitments to make more of Edinburgh’s role as a “gateway” to other areas and “achieving the right balance between a thriving tourism economy and the quality of life for residents.”

The ETAG-commissioned report also called for the growth of the city’s festivals and events to be “carefully managed” in future to reduce the risk of the city reaching a “tipping point” for the way taxpayers feel about visitors.

It also recommends much better monitoring and control of the short-term letting market due to concerns over the impact on the availability of affordable housing and long-time residents.

The blueprint, which will be used to help shape a long-term tourism strategy for the city, warned the industry against possible “complacency” over the impact of further growth in the next decade.

The number of overnight stays has increased by nearly a third since 2010, with the city attracting an extra 750,000 overseas visitors. However there are already plans to further increase the number of hotels by a third.

The report states: “Tourism is growing at a time when the population is expanding, creating competing demands for affordable accommodation, available land, public funds and other resources. Its impact on the city is attracting greater scrutiny.

“There are concerns public space does not meet demand in certain locations, during peak times and major events. The number of day visitors (particularly cruise visitors) has grown rapidly recently, however such visitors often put pressure on city centre infrastructure and attractions during peak times. ‘Growing pains’ associated with the development and growth of the city may lead to growing concern among residents who could oppose tourism related developments in future.

“The city’s history, heritage and built environment are its biggest attraction. It’s important to preserve these and the feeling of authenticity through collective intervention.”

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Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage trust, said: “The report shows the first tentative, but welcome steps towards engaging with some of the challenges that Edinburgh’s successful visitor economy creates, particularly the acknowledgement of its impact on the fragile and under pressure communities in the city centre.

“There are some suggestions around how to relieve pressure on the centre, such as the idea of dispersal - which needs to be carefully thought through to avoid creating more capacity rather than addressing the problems.

“We look forward to working with all those engaged with the initiative to ensure that the final strategy follows through on this report’s question of what tourism can positively do for these communities - a question that is yet to be answered.”

Terry Levinthal, director of the Cockburn Association, the heritage watchdog, suggested the city’s tourism industry was “disconnected” from people who lived in the city and other groups with an interest in the city, saying it appeared to be “inward-looking and self-absorbed.”

He added: “The call to widen out engagement is to be welcomed.

“However we ask that the focus for development remains fundamentally focused on improving the city for its residents and its businesses who operate year-round.

“The impact of short terms holiday lets must be dealt with as a matter of utmost urgency.

“The over-congestion and under-management of tourism and festival impacts have reached the tipping point. Parts of the city are so overcrowded it is downright dangerous. But it is important interventions are done to improve the quality of life for residents first and foremost.”

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The city council’s new tourism policy, which was agreed last month, is intended to set out its “acceptable parameters” for a new long-term industry strategy, which is expected to be published early next year.

It stated: “Edinburgh is one of Europe’s foremost visitor destinations, renowned for its creativity, distinctiveness and unique culture and heritage.

“The city’s character and vibrancy help ensure it remains a destination for visitors - all year round. Our built and natural assets are on a par with anywhere in the world, and the city’s unique character is reflected and shaped by the residents of the city. Like most capital cities, we are a gateway to the rest of the country.

“The quality of life for residents and the attractiveness of Edinburgh as a destination are inextricably linked. The one cannot suffer at the expense of the other. Distinctiveness and authenticity are what attracts the visitor and what makes the city such an exciting place to live in. Getting this balance right is essential for any future tourism strategy.

“Sustainability, in the broadest sense of the term, should be the hallmark of the visitor economy in the city.”

Council Leader Adam McVey said today: “Tourism is having a very positive impact on our economy providing 35,000 jobs and contributing over £1.5 billion to the economy each year.

“We want to see everyone sharing in Edinburgh’s success, and get the balance right between the tourism economy and the city as a whole.

“While we can feel proud of our world-class status and our city’s ever-growing popularity, we must also recognise and address the pressure on our core services and on residents. We have a responsibility to manage that impact while promoting the jobs and cultural opportunities that tourism provides.”