Edinburgh marketing chief urged to retract ‘outright slur’ against heritage watchdog

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The charity responsible for protecting Edinburgh’s World Heritage status is demanding a city marketing chief withdraws comments he made in a hard-hitting speech about the impact of the tourism industry

Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh, is being urged to retract an “outright slur” against Edinburgh World Heritage, which claims he suggested the watchdog had a hatred of tourists.

Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh.

Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh.

READ MORE: Marketing Edinburgh chair releases full ‘Disneyfication’ speech

The charity’s director, Adam Wilkinson, has called on Mr Robertson to make a “public retraction” after his speech to industry leaders at the Balmoral Hotel. In his speech, Mr Robertson, who is also director of communications at Edinburgh Airport, accused critics of wanting the city “preserved in aspic” and suggested the “Disneyfication” of Edinburgh would not be a bad thing.

He questioned how the industry had “allowed others to push this tourism bad narrative and lose the battle of demonstrating the benefits tourism brings to the city”.

However, Edinburgh World Heritage has vowed to “ensure Edinburgh avoids the over-tourism experienced by other European cities.” The charity has previously sparked controversy by warning action is needed to ensure Edinburgh did not become a “hollow shell” like Venice and raised concerns that “commercial over-exploitation of the historic environment represents a threat to the authenticity of the site and will damage visitor appeal”.

Two official council reports in the past 12 months have set out growing concerns about the impact of the industry.

In his speech last week, Mr Robertson suggested “everybody hates a tourist” had almost become the “strapline” of the city over the summer due to “wearing” negativity from commentators, heritage bodies, politicians, residents and businesses. He joked that “everybody hates a tourist” was an excerpt of Edinburgh World Heritage’s board minutes, rather than a lyric by the indie band Pulp.

But last night, Mr Wilkinson hit back. He said: “We work hard to ensure the reason Edinburgh is such an attractive destination – our extraordinary historic environment – is conserved and remains a joy for all. Through almost 1,500 projects, large and small, we’ve helped to ensure our historic tenements, shops, major buildings and public spaces are cared for and conserved to a high standard. This summer we began to find a sustainable use for the Tron Kirk and have welcomed over 250,000 visitors to our exhibition, which explains what’s special about the city through the views and opinions of local people.

“For Mr Robertson to imply that Edinburgh World Heritage ‘hates tourists’ in a highly public setting is at best ill-judged, and at worst, an outright slur. It suggests a simplistic view of this city’s complex challenges. We formally request a public retraction.

“We’ll continue to call for a sustainable industry that balances the needs of visitors, residents and local businesses.”

Responding to the EWH statement, Mr Robertson said: “Edinburgh’s historical significance and its importance to its tourism offering is not in doubt. Neither is the vital contribution that heritage bodies make in preserving it.

“As my speech made clear, we all want an Edinburgh that is a world-class tourism destination and proud of it – a vibrant, modern city that conserves and celebrates its heritage. That looks forward, but understands where it’s from.

“However I believe that the conversation around Edinburgh tourism has to remain open, inclusive, lively and humorous – just like the attributes that this city is famed for.”

The city council currently provides Marketing Edinburgh with £890,000 in support each year, while Edinburgh World Heritage gets an annual grant of £46,000 from the local authority.

City council leader Adam McVey said: “It would be wrong of me to comment on a speech I did not hear at an event I was not at.

“That said, what Adam and Gordon clearly agree on - as do we - is the need for a wider debate around how we strike the right balance between the sustainable growth of our festivals and tourism with the needs of our residents and protecting our city’s heritage.

“We all share in common an ambition to help the city to flourish by introducing a tourist tax in Edinburgh, and I think that’s something we can all work productively towards.”