Alexander McCall Smith: Save Edinburgh from tourism boom

Best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith has warned the historic heart of Edinburgh risks turning into a 'vulgar wasteland of tourist tat shops, big hotels and nothing much else.'
Alexander McCall SmithAlexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

The writer said action was urgently needed to “bring tourism under control” and ensure that ordinary families are still able to live in the city centre.

He has called for the city council to stop “filling the centre of the city with hotels” and take steps to reverse an exodus of residents in recent years due to the number of properties being let out as holiday apartments.

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He has also called for the city to steps to “save” the Royal Mile by banning the hanging of tartan tat goods on the pavements of the famous thoroughfare.

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The author has spoken out just days after tourism industry leaders were warned that the growth of tourism in Edinburgh is being held back by a lack of ambition, too much complacency and claims that the city is has become over-run by visitors.

Its main marketing body has admitted the tourism sector is “under-rated and can be unloved” – but insists the city cannot afford to give the impression that it is “full” or wants to “turn away visitors.”

Heritage watchdogs warned this summer that the city centre is in danger of being over-run with tourists, claiming “commercial over-exploitation” was posing a threat to the “authenticity” of Edinburgh’s world heritage site.

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Writing on the Edinburgh Reporter website, McCall Smith said: “We need to stop filling the centre of the city with hotels.

“We need hotels but we need to build new hotels on the periphery and not in the Old Town (or the New Town, for that matter).

Hotels push houses out. Hotels take over premises that could be used for offices and shops.

“Hotels are fine, but cities should not be made up exclusively of hotels. Why would people come to a city full of hotels? To see other hotels? People come to Edinburgh to see a real place, with small streets and small shops, and ordinary people going about their business.”

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“We must keep tourism under control because if we don’t, by 2050 Edinburgh will be a vulgar wasteland of tourist tat shops, big hotels, and nothing much else.

“We need to keep communities alive in the Old Town. We need to seek ways of making it possible for ordinary families to continue to live in town.

“That will require some serious thinking by the planning authorities and the council in general. We will need to ensure that Airbnb establishments don’t take over the place – in some cities the threat that this poses to the viability of local communities is now recognised and has been acted upon.

“We need to ban the hanging of tartan merchandise out on the pavement. Pavements are not meant to be obstructed – so why is the law not being enforced?

“Our city won’t look after itself. We need to cherish it.”

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Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “The growth in the number of hotels and short-term holiday rentals in recent years reflects a large increase in demand due to Edinburgh’s unique appeal as a vibrant and beautiful historic capital city.

“However, we believe that the future prosperity of the city will partly depend on embracing a more sustainable approach to tourism growth.

“For Edinburgh, this means an industry committed to making a low impact on the historic environment and local culture, while helping to generate future employment for local people.

“It means balancing the needs of visitors with residents and local businesses. We are encouraged that more and more people are adopting this approach, and urge the city council, and industry bodies to embrace these principles in planning for the future.”

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Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh, said: “We must balance the growth and the benefits with the need to protect the very fabric and spirit of what is behind that success.

“Our approach is to actively balance the needs of tourists, businesses and resident so that all benefit from Edinburgh’s success in tourism.

“We’ve learned from our work over the past few years, working with stakeholders and talking to and visiting other cities that this balance is crucial in cities such as ours.

“We’ll be taking that strategy to all interested parties to make sure we get the balance right.

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“I would say, however, that it is incumbent on all to come to this discussion with open minds and a willingness to discuss the issue based on fact and not anecdote.

“Our strategy has to be for the Edinburgh of the future – not the past.”

McCall Smith’s comments were made in an article commissioned by the Edinburgh City Vision project exploring what the city might be like in 2050.

Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, Frank Ross, said: “As one of the nation’s favourite authors, leading academics, and an Edinburgh citizen, it is fantastic to see Alexander McCall Smith join and promote the City Vision debate.

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“Our aim is to engage with all citizens, gather as many ideas as possible and create a vision that will guide Edinburgh into 2050 and beyond.

“We welcome all views and ambitions for the city and hope McCall Smith’s contribution encourages others to engage and have their opinions heard.”