Former culture chief blames heritage status for Edinburgh becoming ‘overwhelmed’ with visitors

Edinburgh’s world heritage status was to blame for the city’s pre-Covid overtourism problems rather than the growing audiences for its festivals, according to a former city council culture chief.

Lynne Halfpenny, the council’s director of culture until earlier this year, dismissed suggestions the people of Edinburgh had fallen out of love with festivals as “nonsense” during Wednesday’s summit called to help shape the future of the city’s major cultural events.

She insisted the Old Town and the Royal Mile had become overwhelmed with visitors and was seen as a “bucket list” destination because of Edinburgh’s Unesco designation and not its ‘festival city’ status.

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Ms Halfpenny said the festivals had become caught up in a “polarised debate” about their impact on the city when the focus should instead be on how to manage visitor numbers to the World Heritage Site when the city’s tourism industry recovered.

The summit was staged against a backdrop of debate over efforts to revive the city’s summer festivals, which attracted a record audience of more than 4.4 million in 2019.

The festivals were linked with Edinburgh being name one of the world’s overtourism hotspots, alongside Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Rome. Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association have raised concerns about their impact on the environment, amid demands for curbs on the “festivalisation” of the city by banning long-standing events and sites.

Organisers of the city’s major events attended the summit – Rediscovering Our Festival City – which was hosted by the book festival at its new home at Edinburgh College of Art.

Edinburgh International Book Festival director Nick Barley said: “Around the world Edinburgh is regarded as an extraordinary phenomenon and a success story 75 years old because of the quality of its festivals and what that’s done for the reputation of the city. If you speak to people in the city, of course, the picture is more mixed.

Edinburgh was named last year as a hotspot for overtourism in 2019. Picture: Ian GeorgesonEdinburgh was named last year as a hotspot for overtourism in 2019. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Edinburgh was named last year as a hotspot for overtourism in 2019. Picture: Ian Georgeson

"I think it’s worth remembering that the festivals became so successful primarily because of the appetite of the citizens of this city.

"Where did that appetite come from, what sustained it and where did we – somewhere in the last few years – lose touch with the idea of ourselves as a festival city? How can we rediscover that mood and appetite? How can we fall back in love with that idea again?”

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However, Ms Halfpenny, who has more than 35 years of experience in Scotland’s cultural sector, said: “I don’t agree that we’ve fallen out of love with our festivals. I think that’s absolute nonsense.

"This city adores its festivals and the world adores Edinburgh and its festivals. The festivals are the success story here. We should stop kicking ourselves.

More than 2.2 million people visited Edinburgh Castle in 2019.More than 2.2 million people visited Edinburgh Castle in 2019.
More than 2.2 million people visited Edinburgh Castle in 2019.

“I don’t think World Heritage Site status has done us any good at all in Edinburgh. I actually think that’s one of the issues we need to have a broader discussion about.

“I know, having lived in this city since 1981, the numbers of people coming to Edinburgh have probably escalated because we’re now on the bucket list.

"Everybody wants to come to Unesco World Heritage sites and our castle in Edinburgh is the most visited in Scotland. Why is that? It's because Edinburgh is a World Heritage Site, not because it’s a ‘festival city’.

“If we’re talking about recovery going forward and we’re going to moderate the impact of being a World Heritage Site, we’re going to have to manage how we deal with audiences coming to see our heritage. The issue for me is more about that.

Shona the Musical Choir have been among the acts performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jess ShurteShona the Musical Choir have been among the acts performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jess Shurte
Shona the Musical Choir have been among the acts performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jess Shurte

“The overwhelming of the city was not down to the festivals. It was overwhelmed by people coming to see heritage buildings, the Royal Mile and the Old Town.”

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