UK culture secretary urges Edinburgh festivals to return to their previous scale to help bring back overseas visitors

The UK’s culture secretary has urged Edinburgh’s festivals to return to their previous size and scale as soon as possible – despite warnings that their recovery could put the city’s world heritage site status at risk.

Crowds normally pack into the Royal Mile to watch street performers when the Fringe is on. Picture: David Monteith Hodge

Oliver Dowden said the city’s flagship cultural events had a key role to play next year to help “sell the UK on the world stage”.

Speaking during a visit to the festivals, he suggested they would be promoted alongside celebrations to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and 100 years of the BBC, as well as the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and a UK-wide celebration of culture.

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Mr Dowden said the Edinburgh festivals, which are due to celebrate their 75th anniversary in 2022, were needed to help revive the overseas tourism market in the UK.

Oliver Dowden visited the new book festival site at Edinburgh College of Art today. Picture: DCMS

However, he suggested there was also an opportunity for the festivals to be “stronger and better” when they return next year due to way the arts world had embraced new technology and online events.

Edinburgh’s summer festivals attracted a record audience of more than 4.4 million in 2019, when more than 25,000 artists took part in 5,000 events.

However, they had been coming under increasing scrutiny pre-Covid due to crowd congestion in some parts of the city centre, the soaring cost of accommodation in August, and concerns about their increasing carbon footprint.

Mr Dowden said: “Edinburgh’s festivals don’t just belong to Scotland and the wider UK, they belong to the whole world.

Oliver Dowden has met with the leaders of Edinburgh's festivals.

"Last year and into this year was just about rescue. I think we’re now moving into the recovery phase.

“This year’s Edinburgh festivals have not been how people want them to be. The conversations I’ve been having with them is about how to really use 2022 as a launchpad.

"We’ve not just got the 75th anniversary of Edinburgh’s festivals next year – we’ve also got 100 years of the BBC, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and Festival UK 2022.

“If we didn’t have all that happening we’d be scratching our heads wondering how to get back on the world stage.

"I want to use all those wonderful anniversaries to really sell the UK. We want to make 2022 a real year of celebration. A big part of that is getting international visitors back.

"I’ve been talking to the festivals about how we can really get out there and say that the UK is back open for business."

Mr Dowden said the UK Government had already helped raise the global profile of Edinburgh’s festivals by investing £1 million in new digital initiatives.

He said: “Getting Edinburgh’s festivals back to the scale they were at in 2019 isn’t an issue for me at all. That’s what we need to aim for.

“Of course we want them to get back to the level of activity they had before, but I think there’s also an opportunity to come back even better and stronger.

“We’ve come together with the festivals to address the Covid crisis, but I want to make sure that we build on the relationship we’ve now got, and keep it going into next year, so we can start to actively promoting them.

"I’m always open to new things we can do – they’re a wonderful asset for Scotland and for the whole of the UK.”

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