FRINGE organisers are warning that performers will be driven away from Edinburgh if changes to immigration rules force them to pay for work permits.
It is feared groups from outside the European Union could be hit with bills for thousands of pounds under the a new system due to be introduced in 2008. The Fringe is currently exempt from normal work permit rules, but if this ends, each performer could have to pay around 150 to come to the UK.
Around 25 per cent of performers could be affected, and organisers say it threatens the diversity and international reputation of the Fringe. Organisers are meeting Home Office officials next week to try to persuade them to preserve the permit-free status.
Around 40 arts festivals, including T in the Park, Celtic Connections and the BBC Proms, enjoy permit-free status.
But a Home Office spokeswoman said it could not guarantee this would continue under the new rules. She stressed that the 2007 Fringe would not be affected. Laura Mackenzie Stuart, chairwoman of the Association of Independent Venues and Producers, said: "This is potentially catastrophic for the Fringe. The biggest concern is the impact it will have on the range of shows that can come.
If theatre companies have to pay 150 per person, this will be an enormous barrier to them coming. Very few are leaving having made a significant profit. It is going to damage the local economy."
Ann Russell, general manager of the Gilded Balloon, said companies such as the Brooklyn Ballet, from the US, could be badly hit.
She said: "They are doing it on a very tight budget anyway. I think it would make the Fringe very hard to access. It is a worldwide festival, but this would take away a lot of the variety."
Kieran Healey, marketing manager for C Venues, said: "It's often the smaller, low-budget productions that add to the vibrancy of the Fringe. If you take these out, you are damaging the festival."
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We are negotiating with the entertainment industry on how the new rules will affect them. No decision has been taken on whether the Fringe will continue to have an exempt status."