Edinburgh And Tourism – What Future?
Long before coronavirus arrived in Edinburgh, there was a tension building in the city. That same tension existed in most popular beautiful cities around the world too including Venice, Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Now, having had time to reflect, what should the future hold for Edinburgh and tourism?
The word overtourism was only created in 2015, but since then has become the most commonly used expression to describe the negative impacts ascribed to tourism. The tension building in these popular cities was between annoyed residents and the tourism industry with particular loathing aimed at Airbnb. Law makers and politicians were in the process of making changes to deal with the impact as they saw it.
But just as it felt like there may be an explosion, coronavirus arrived, shutting down the world and pressing the pause button on tourism overnight. It’s now clear that the road to recovery is going to be long and that the world as we know it will have changed on the other side. What changes would make the city work better for residents, business and visitors?
Edinburgh and Tourism – What Future?
Emotions pre coronavirus were running high around the subject of tourism in Edinburgh. Blame was regularly laid at the door of holiday lets and especially Airbnb. The world often felt so divided of late with the two camps in whatever issue – Remain/Leave, Independence/Union, Tourism/Residents finding it far easier to talk (and sometimes scream) about what divided rather than united them. The media has certainly fanned the flames of division. All those extreme headlines have done little to create a space for people to find common ground and consensus.
The emotive headlines and shouts of a few, have often drowned out the rational majority.
Edinburgh’s Christmas – changes are required
There were strong feelings here over the winter this year about Edinburgh’s Christmas. There was anger about the scale, the way our public green spaces were damaged and off limits, the profits being made by the organisers and the way the contracts had been handled by Edinburgh Council.
I experienced many people talking about it at social events. So, in January we asked people what they thought on our Facebook page and in some Edinburgh Facebook groups. We were fascinated and reassured by the many responses. We’d been expecting high levels of anger but there were none. Instead intelligent, measured Edinburgh folk gave intelligent, measured responses. This response from Adele was typical.
“Tourism is a good thing for Edinburgh but it needs to be managed better. It needs to be spread out across our city rather than mass concentration on the city centre and it needs to be completely focused on promoting Scotland. Why have a German market selling cheap tat year on year when we could have a Scottish craft market showcasing Scottish designers, crafters and producers? Why have European food and drink when Scotland has some of the best food and drink in the world? Surely showcasing everything Scotland is better for our economy, better for our communities and Scotland as a whole.”
We agree with everything Adele said and so did many of the readers of our post. The responses reassured us because here was evidence of common ground and consensus whilst supporting tourism and understanding its benefits to Scotland. If it’s so obvious to many residents that Edinburgh’s Christmas should be an opportunity to sell Scotland to the world, how come Edinburgh Council haven’t worked that out?
If only this had been discussed more because there’s been growing international feeling that Edinburgh doesn’t want visitors anymore. The ripple effect of negative headlines about tourism in the city has spread globally.
Ironically, all over the UK there are cities which would give their right arm for the tourism Edinburgh has – the festivals, the history, the architecture, the beauty, the literature, the stories that draw people here again and again.
This week, we heard that Edinburgh council leader, Adam McVey, would ‘not have chosen’ to give Airbnbs business support grants. So we know that anti tourist sentiment is, unfortunately, alive and kicking at decision making level in Edinburgh.
I have so many concerns about this comment as it’s clear his preference is to delete a whole sector of the economy. A sector of the economy which houses 30% of all visitors to Edinburgh, supports many jobs, contributes millions to our economy and includes many, many hard working people delivering a world class service. Homes let for holidays all year round qualify for business rates because they are a business, just like any other business and at the moment their industry is decimated.
That’s a lot of visitors choosing to stay in homes too. Adam McVey and others want their choice to be limited to hotels, apart hotels or a shared room in a home apart from during the summer festival. How can we have confidence that decision makers decisions are rational and balanced when his bias against a whole vital sector of the economy is so publicly clear?
The Chief Executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self Caterers, Fiona Campbell said,
“The traditional self-catering sector is worth £723million per year to the Scottish economy (£50million to Edinburgh alone) and failing to support it will have serious implications for the sector’s economic recovery, and that is why Adam McVey’s comments are so disappointing. The ASSC has met with Mr McVey a number of times and he has always seemed fair but his rhetoric of late seems to suggest he is against all STRs, not just those operating ‘unlawfully’. We will be seeking some urgent clarification on this matter from him.”
Should Edinburgh’s Old Town homes be off limits to visitors?
Last year we were approached by the owner of a three bedroom home off The Grassmarket. They work most of the year abroad, but wanted to buy a home in Edinburgh because they come from here and their family are here. They’d use it for part of the year themselves. The flat has three bedrooms and a balcony with the most incredible view of Edinburgh Castle. They are extremely responsible, were involved with their stairwell and gave their contact details to all their neighbours in case of any problems. They let the flat to holiday makers through another local agent and were never contacted by any of their neighbours with any complaints.
Edinburgh council has decided that homes being let regularly to visitors for less than 28 days need to apply for a planning change of use from residential to commercial and that in a residential stairwell it will not be granted. In the Old Town nearly all homes are within communal stairwells so the council want there to be almost no ability for visitors to stay in homes in the Old Town.
Do the Old Town’s amenities support residents?
I’m a resident of Edinburgh and I completely agree that the needs of residents should have absolute priority. I do wonder then why there wasn’t more care and concerns for residents in planning the retail mix in the Old Town and Royal Mile? There are currently almost no retail shops catering to residents and that’s got to play it’s part in the decline of residents in the area. Edinburgh Council owns many of retail premises too. What was their thinking when they let yet another shop to someone selling tartan tat?
A Harry Potter/Outlander theme world has been created in the Old Town appealing directly to visitors to the city. Many visitors think Edinburgh IS the Royal Mile and Old Town. They don’t go elsewhere. You’ll starve living here unless you love shortbread and Edinburgh rock, so is it any wonder that there are few residents here anymore? Should the city deny respectful visitors the ability to stay here in a home rather than a hotel when it’s gone out of it’s way to create a pastiche of Edinburgh for them and done so much to make living here full time challenging?
Back to the flat in the Grassmarket. Someone reported them to the council and even though the owner had never received a complaint, the council told them they could no longer let to holidaymakers. So, who is going to rent this three bedroom flat with the balcony with the absolutely amazing view of Edinburgh Castle? A family? No chance. I have a family and there’s no way that we could live in the Grassmarket because there aren’t the amenities to support us there. No, the flat is going to let to students. And what’s not at all clear to me is how that’s a better result for that stairwell, local residents or the wider Grassmarket community.
Edinburgh needs more self respect
The people in charge of Edinburgh don’t appear to be good at collaborative thinking and it’s harming the city for everyone. They don’t seem to respect the city in the way it deserves to be respected. Like the lack of foresight and planning of the Old Town’s retail mix and the impact that would have for residents, they didn’t think it was necessary to insist that Edinburgh’s Christmas was a showcase for Scotland. After all, that unbelievably good position underneath Edinburgh Castle is surely as good at it gets anywhere in the world and crying out to celebrate Scotland isn’t it?
In the last weekend of The Festival in 2019 when the city was bulging at the seams with people, the city thought it was reasonable to have a large concert in Princes Street Gardens and to top it off with a sold out Scotland v France rugby international at Murrayfield. That’s too many people in Edinburgh at one time.
Coronavirus has provided the opportunity to reflect
Coronavirus has given the world the opportunity to pause and reflect. We’re all sitting in our homes thinking about whether we want the world to be different on the other side. There is definitely a sense that everything was getting too much. The Edinburgh Festival was beginning to feel too much. We wrote a widely read blog about the Festival’s future last year. As a resident it was becoming harder to ‘live’ here in August. Fergus Linehan, the Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, acknowledged after this year’s Festival was cancelled that the quest for ‘never ending growth’ had to end and that the Festival needed to reconnect with the residents of the city. It will be exciting to see his plans for 2021.
Sam Piacentini is the Chair of the Old Town Community Council. He’s also been incredibly kind in delivering food to my Mum in this lock down period. We had a fascinating, rational and socially distanced chat in her garden the other day about the issues of tourism in Edinburgh and the Old Town in particular. We discussed many of the things I’ve mentioned in this blog and found much to agree about. He said
“I am very pleased that the official Festivals are recognising that they need to reconnect with the citizens of Edinburgh, equally for the benefit of local independent businesses and not the tourist tat. It’s vital that there is a quality experience for all and that quality is at the heart of the future of Edinburgh’s tourism.”
What should the future of tourism in Edinburgh look like?
Like Sam Piacentini, we think that quality should be at the heart of Edinburgh’s tourism offer. Growth at all costs definitely doesn’t work. Edinburgh is such a high quality city but it feels like we’ve lost sight of that recently. So much anger has been directed at short term letting but we need our decision makers to have much more respect for us and our city.
When our public spaces are rented to commercial ventures, the needs of residents must be paramount. It’s ludicrous that boardings are put up on Princes Street when commercial concerts take place in this public park so that the public can’t see them. The council must use the opportunity when negotiating contracts to rent these spaces, that wherever possible, marketing Scotland and all we have to offer happens. And they must negotiate these contracts hard on behalf of and for the people of Edinburgh, so that benefit is clear to us.
We need to entice visitors to the city away from the Old Town, letting them discover all the other wonderful areas of the city that have so much going for them. Tourism must contribute to the city and not be a detriment to it and balance is key. Visitors want to experience the places they visit and so rather than asking locals what they can do for visitors, we should be asking visitors what they can do for locals.
The city has never supported the summer festivals with proper infrastructure. The main venues are currently packed in a small area of the Old Town. It would benefit the city of local businesses if they were spread out. One of the reasons that people performing in the festival need to stay very centrally is that when they leave their venues in the wee hours, there are few buses available to take them home, so they have to walk. If performers and festival goers had proper 24/7 transport links they’d be able to stay further from their venues. This would create balance and spread the benefit across the city.
And where should those visitors stay? We believe visitors should have a choice of where to stay. But it’s also crucial that people operating holiday lets need to respect their neighbours. Sam Piacentini said that Old Town residents resent coming home and finding laundry bags in their stairwells. And that’s totally understandable. It should not happen.
However, we think it’s ludicrous that there should be no holiday lets in the Old Town. It’s crucial though that residents should have contact details for the people operating lets in their stairwell and the ability to report and complain where that’s necessary. Assuming that every holiday let is a problem is wrong, biased and does a disservice to all the letting professionals doing a great job.
With HMO licenses, objections are public. It will be clear if the objection is justified rather than a grievance. That’s not the case with holiday lets, where it’s all much more cloak and dagger. Complainers don’t need to be neighbours, they will remain anonymous and no questions will ever be asked if their complaints are justified. That system is going to encourage false grievances. If owners of holiday lets and their guests are complained about and those complaints are justified, then there should be a mechanism to close them down.
Homes advertising themselves with clear overcrowding should be definitely be closed down. You can find a number of apartments easily online that sleep more than 20 people in the city and that just can’t be right. It’s too much. We operate on the basis that if a home has one bedroom it should sleep two people.
The impact of Coronavirus
Scotland’s tourism industry has been very strongly impacted by the virus. It isn’t clear how and when the lockdown will be eased and we don’t yet know which businesses will have weathered the storm to be able to open their doors again. We do know what Edinburgh completely empty looks like now though and whilst it’s undoubtedly beautiful, it is eerie too. It has been a privilege to experience the magnificence of the city with few cars and people. Edinburgh locals have had their city to themselves and have reflected on how they want to share it when the world opens up.
When and how visitors will return is a question that businesses like ours are asking themselves. I had personally hoped that seeing Scotland’s tourism industry devastated would have softened Adam McVey’s attitude to my industry but it clearly hasn’t. Many homes that were let on for holiday lets have moved to long term letting and that will please the industry’s detractors. I hope that the attitude towards those that remain will be balanced and measured.
We sincerely hope that when lockdown ends quality, respect and balance will be at the heart of our cities tourism strategy so that residents, business and visitors can exist in harmony to enjoy this magnificent city together for centuries to come.