Edinburgh’s festivals have all to play for as they prepare for big comeback – Brian Ferguson
Back in the summer of 2019, when we are blissfully unaware of the coming pandemic, Edinburgh’s festivals felt like something of an unstoppable juggernaut.
A remarkable overall attendance of nearly five million had been notched up by the end of August.
It was a season that broke all kinds of box office records but also one that left the city somewhat divided about the benefits and impacts of its major events.
The year-on-year growth of both the city’s tourism industry and its events calendar may have been good news for business owners and venue operators.
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But the historic heart of the city did feel as if it was creaking at the seams a bit, particularly during the weekend peaks. Wandering from the south side to the Old Town was a memorable experience and an assault on the senses, but also felt like an endurance exercise.
Edinburgh may have sold itself as the world's "festival city”, but did it really offer a world-class experience for audiences, performers and its local residents?
As the festival season drew to a halt, there was an unmistakable feeling that things would have to change the following year.
Of course, Edinburgh and its festivals never did get the chance to re-set in 2020, thanks to Covid and everything it brought, from lengthy shutdowns of the entertainment industry and harsh restrictions when events did return to the ongoing 11th-hour cancellations.
Although the festivals did make a comeback of sorts in 2021, Edinburgh felt like a shadow of its previous self after the late lifting of restrictions.
The big questions then were whether the festivals and their audiences would ever return to the same scale as 2019.
With the launch of the jazz festival and its opening weekend celebrations less than a fortnight away, and the International Festival, Fringe and the Tattoo due to blast off in under a month, we won’t have long to wait to find out.
The current backdrop to the final countdown is fascinating.
It was helpfully illustrated last week at the launch of a new long-term vision for the festivals, where the countless challenges they face were laid bare.
Three years ago, the biggest issue looming on the horizon for the festivals was Brexit. That now appears to be the least of their worries.
The cost-of-living crisis is rarely out of the headlines. Festivals are having to cope with their own soaring costs while meeting increasing demands to cut their carbon footprint.
Despite all hopes and expectations, Covid has not vanished and must still be dampening demand for tickets given uncertainty about being unable to attend shows. If you live outside Edinburgh, it is debatable whether there is any more certainty about being able to get a train home at the end of the night.
Many people living in Edinburgh will still have to navigate tramworks to get in and out of the city centre.
Yet with well over 4,000 events and shows expected to be staged in Edinburgh over six weeks, it appears the demand to perform and put on shows is as strong as ever.
The other half of the battle, to get audiences through the doors, still needs to be won. But, despite everything, there is certainly all to play for.