Scottish tourism chief calls for Edinburgh festivals rethink

Scottish tourism chiefs have urged the Edinburgh festivals to reinvent themselves when they return in 2021 – admitted they had become “formulaic” and were not reaching enough parts of the city in recent years.

Edinburgh's festivals attracted an audience of more than four million in 2019. Picture: David Monteith-Hodge

VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead suggested the festivals needed to “step back” and consider their impact on the environment and how to retain their quality without growing in size every year.

Mr Roughead, who said he had been attending festival events for 20 years, suggested that the technological innovations which had emerged during the coronavirus pandemic were likely to influence what shape events took in future.

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However, he said it was crucial for the festivals to retain their international profile and appeal, and not become inward-looking after the enforced hiatus of live events in the city this month.

The main summer festivals attracted an overall audience of more than 4.4 million last year.

More than 25,000 artists and performers from 70 countries were said to have taken part in the city’s flagship cultural events.

They date back to the aftermath of the Second World War, when they were instigated to try to bring people and artists from around the world together in the Scottish capital.

However they have grown since then to become an event second only in scale to the Olympic Games.

The annual increases in shows and ticket sales have been accompanied by growing concerns about the city centre’s ability to cope with the festivals, in particular the historic Old Town.

Heritage groups began drawing unfavourable comparisons between Edinburgh and Venice three years ago, weeks before the festivals were due to celebrate their 70th anniversary.

Last year the “numbers swelling during its August festivals” were cited in a report naming Edinburgh as one of the world’s worst over-tourism hotspots.

Umbrella body Festivals Edinburgh insisted earlier this year that “growth for growth’s sake” for not on the agenda of the city’s cultural events and said they would need “constant reinvention if we are to continue to inspire the next generation and ensure the festivals have something of benefit to offer to everyone.”

Speaking before the pandemic spread to the UK, Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour said: “Our focus is to ensure that Edinburgh is a place of great cultural discoveries and experiences from home and abroad.”

The International Festival, the Fringe, the Tattoo and the city’s celebrations of visual art and literature were all officially called off at the beginning of April.

However all except the Tattoo have since rebooted with programmes of mainly online events.

In an exclusive interview, Mr Roughead said: “The festivals are doing a lot of consultation with people on what kind of city they want Edinburgh to be and where the festivals should feed into that.

“The more that communities are part of the festivals, the more they benefit from them and the more they are part of the overall experience, rather than having the festivals done to them then the greater acceptance and understanding people will have of the benefits of the festivals.

“There will be greater ownership of the festivals and they will be more inclusive if they can go out to areas which are normally untouched by them.

“The world is moving in a much more responsible and sustainable way. I’m sure the people who run these events are already thinking about that.

“World class doesn’t have to mean size and scale, it should be about the quality of the event. That’s what the festivals are looking at.

“There are other things like what role technology will play, whether events can be livestreamed and what the business model for events is going to look like in the future.

“There’s all sorts of stuff we’ve had to think about out if the current situation that we’ve found ourselves in.

“I think the festivals themselves have recognised that they had to change.

“I’ve been going to them for 20 years. A lot of it is kind of formulaic. It would be nice to see something different and experience something different. It would be nice to be surprised.

“The Edinburgh festivals are represented on a new advisory group which has just been set up to give the events industry a voice. That group is going to be really important in terms of bringing together ideas and innovative practices, as well as international knowledge and ideas, so it is not just about looking inwards.

“The festivals in Edinburgh are clearly globally acclaimed, but sometimes it is important to step back and say: ‘Where now and how we do we do this?’

“However, if they don’t have international appeal in future they wouldn’t be the Edinburgh festivals. They have been developed over many years into such a world-class asset for the city and the country. You wouldn’t want to see that diminished in any way in future.”

Council and tourism leaders in Edinburgh launched new campaign yesterday to restore its “missing buzz” and persuade locals to “fall in love with it all over again” a month after hotels, cafes, restaurants and visitor attractions were allowed to reopen across Scotland.

The Edinburgh Hotels Association has warned that the city is facing its “worst month ever” for tourism due to a dramatic slump in trade this month, triggered by the absence of the festivals, a slump in overseas visitors, the ongoing closure of some attractions and a reluctance by UK holidaymakers to book city breaks.

The growing popularity of Edinburgh as an international tourism destination has led to the creation of 5000 new hotel rooms in the city over the last decade. But there have been warnings that around 18,000 of the city’s 34,000 tourism and hospitality jobs could be lost by the end of 2020.

Mr Roughead added: “It’s not really a surprise that Edinburgh has been quiet over the last few weeks when you look at what has happened elsewhere in Europe over the past few months.

“There has been a trend for people to get out of high-density population areas. Coastal areas and the hills, self-catering accommodation and motor-homes were always going to be major attractions for people who either wanted to isolate themselves or get into the great outdoors.”

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