Edinburgh tourism row: Why animosity and conflict are not helping – Gordon Dewar

Edinburgh needs to find a balanced approach to tourism and concerns over issues such as congestion in parts of the city, writes Gordon Dewar.

Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 6:00 am
Edinburgh’s Christmas market attracted vast crowds of tourists and locals alike (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

I recently read an article in the Times by Gillian Bowditch that called for Scotland and Edinburgh to give a better welcome to tourists, rightly acknowledging the value they bring and the growing options they have about where they will choose to spend their time and money.

It was refreshing to see someone with a positive outlook on tourism at a time when others seem too quick to criticise an industry which is so crucial to our country and our city.

As residents, businesses, heritage groups and more, we sometimes forget just why Edinburgh and Scotland top must-visit lists across the world.

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For example, the tourism sector is the largest employer in Scotland and tourist spend generated around £11 billion of economic activity in the wider Scottish supply chain and contributed around £6 billion to Scottish GDP (in basic prices).

This represents about five per cent of total Scottish GDP. Those figures are for 2018 – I can only imagine they have increased. Looking at Edinburgh specifically, the gross value added (GVA) generated by visitor expenditure has almost doubled from £453 million in 2010 to £896 million in 2018. Impressive numbers that are important to our economy and the livelihoods of many.

Other cities would love Edinburgh’s reputation

Yet while there are many world-class elements of the Scottish visitor offer, there is only one thing that separates us from the world, is our unique selling point and unchallenged as the best in its field. And that is our festivals.

No one rivals our ability to put on a festival and it is one of the biggest draws to Edinburgh.

Every year millions of people come to experience it, to say they were there and say they’ve had the pleasure of calling our city home for a few days or weeks. We should be proud of that and it should be something we value as there are many cities that would love to have that reputation.

Yet, the past few weeks has not portrayed the same positivity.

It has been disheartening to watch certain factions unfairly focusing on perceived or fabricated failures of others when we all share the same goal in preserving and promoting the reputation of the city. We should be working together to ensure the diverse needs and requirements of our capital city are being catered for and delivering success.

It is, of course, right to raise valid concerns and have them addressed but the recent debate has not been balanced and a solution will not be found until it is. The success of our festivals, of course, brings challenges. It is true that parts of the city feel congested across Christmas and New Year and through August. We should be looking at those issues and plotting our future, mapping out where to improve and where to invest.

Animosity and conflict

And what we need to achieve that is leadership. We need someone to embrace and confront those challenges and find ways to sustainably harness and grow the success we currently enjoy.

Can we spread the footprint of our festivals to maintain and expand the offer whilst smoothing and reducing congestion? Can we bring St Andrew Square back into the Fringe family?

Can we utilise the Waverley car park in August, a site that is well connected, away from residents and a move that would decrease the number of cars in the city? Should every new city centre development consider accommodating performance space? The answers to these questions may be no but we need someone to ask them if we are to generate the discussion and provoke the debate that the city needs.

It is only then that a solution that balances the needs and requirements of the city and its various stakeholders will be found.

Animosity and conflict will not address the challenges that we have. It will only serve to further inflame and provoke an already delicate topic.

But it’s a topic which has the attention of many because we all have an affection for the city, and we must remember that when we’re talking about tourism or we run the risk of cutting our nose off to spite our face – and that is a strategy that has never proved successful.


I hope we find that leadership and identify a balanced approach that celebrates everything about Edinburgh and Scotland.

And, for the sake of the city, I hope that we can recognise the contributions that so many people make to ensure that success, be it our home-grown festival organisations, our universities and, of course, those like Underbelly who deliver a world-beating festival experience all within very significant time, space and economic constraints.

Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood share a passion for this city – they both graduated from the University of Edinburgh and they cut their teeth in events in Edinburgh many years ago. They now run one of the most successful international events organisations in the world.

The criticism they have taken has been disappointing because I know they care about our city and have made an incredibly valuable contribution to it. We all do and have. But we should all be working with each other to utilise the collective skills and knowledge that we have and come up with a strategy that embeds that need to promote the city with the duty to protect it.

The key is now building on Edinburgh’s success to benefit us all, but the debate must be balanced and inclusive.

Gordon Dewar is chief executive of Edinburgh Airport