The old joke in the 60s and 70s was that Glasgow was like Disneyland, as in this disnae work and that disnae work. Judging by the state of the roads, the chaotic reorganisation of bins service and the prospect of £39m of SNP-imposed cuts to come this year alone, it could apply to Edinburgh today
But that wasn’t what Marketing Edinburgh chair Gordon Robertson had in mind last week when he told his organisation’s Christmas bash that “Disneyfication”, or at least the Disney approach to selling its tourist attractions, had much to commend it.
“The word ‘disneyfication’ has been bandied about as a critique of the way Edinburgh is headed,” he told ME’s staff and guests at the Balmoral Hotel event. “I’m not so sure Disneyfication is a bad thing? At least they’ve invested in their sites, they have a plan, it provides thousands of jobs, their well-trained staff provide a fantastic experience and they’re extremely profitable which is used to invest back into the product.”
If his speech was designed to reignite the debate about the value of tourism, then it certainly hit the spot, with a torrent of social media abuse following coverage in the Evening News and Scotsman, questioning the state of his mind and his fitness to hold such an important office, amongst other jibes. As his day job is director of communications at the airport, his critics were quick to level accusations of greed and self-interest.
Seeking refuge behind an insistence it was all tongue-in-cheek, it was all taken out of context and all that stuff didn’t make much difference, but that’s public life for you. Making comparisons can be a dangerous game. But does he have a point or not? I’ve only been to Disneyland once, the Paris version, and while the kids loved it, the plastic environment and the inescapable, cloying, canned music everywhere meant the novelty very soon wore off. The movies I love, but it was still like being in an episode of The Prisoner and after a few hours what I craved more than anything else was, apart from a pint, a sense of reality. And a stop to that damned, awful music.
So from that point of view, with pipe tunes being murdered on the Royal Mile by kilted buskers or the tinny stuff whining from the tat shops, maybe Edinburgh has already been Disneyfied. But the obvious difference between Disneyland and any of the world’s major city tourism destinations is authenticity and history; an essential part of the experience is soaking up the atmosphere from surroundings a time-traveller from the 18th century would recognise.
And as Robertson’s many detractors have pointed out, no-one lives in Disneyland and the essence of Edinburgh is it remains a living, breathing city which should accommodate tourists but not give itself over to them.
The other key difference is that Edinburgh is not and never will be a mass-market destination, which is why the unashamed tackiness of the Christmas Market comes in for such criticism. I missed the Marketing Edinburgh event because I was in Amsterdam as part of a process to bring a major world conference to Scotland next year, which is tourism by any other name. Amsterdam too struggles with modern tourism and with its “coffee” shops and Red Light notoriety it is a mass-market destination with all the pressures that brings. But it’s still a place where people live and thanks to the preservation of its 17th century elegance an upmarket destination too.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from Disney, it’s how to package up the experience and sell it effectively. For Disney, everything is an illusion, an ersatz creation of a world that never existed, but for Edinburgh the experience and culture are real, with real people living amongst it. Lose that and it will finally be Disneyland.