Though you may question his timing, Professor Charles McKean’s salvo on the poor “visitor experience” Edinburgh offers is a view that should be listened to.
It is a pity that the good prof waited until the announcement of his departure before letting rip, but perhaps as chairman of Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) he was in a bind. After all, a heritage watchdog whose role is to keep an eye on the likes of the city council and Historic Scotland but whose funding as a charity comes largely from those two bodies is never going to bite the hands that feed it.
There is a view that EWH, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the Cockburn Association are old-fashioned Nimby groups of interfering busybodies who exist to allow fuddy-duddies to spout forth their flawed version of wisdom which comes down to two good Scots words – dae nuthin’. It’s not a view of them that I share, though I do question why some of the self-appointed so-called expert bodies are given extra credence. Still, McKean has spoken out and he should be listened to – because he is correct.
Having been fortunate to travel throughout Europe over the years, I have to disagree with McKean that parts of Edinburgh’s visitor experience are among the worst in Europe. No, they are much, much worse than that, particularly our roads and the galling lack of a central interpretation centre where people can go for a one-stop complete information experience. We do not even have a decent “one ticket buys all” scheme which even third-class cities across the globe possess.
Major capital cities such as Paris, London and Rome are replete with visitor attractions where people are treated sensibly and don’t have to queue for information – with few exceptions, our attractions are really not very good at helping tourists enjoy their visits.
The tourist centre at Waverley Market is seen as a gateway for Scotland – its official name is the VisitScotland Information Centre. As such, there is no central place dedicated solely to giving visitors serious information about Edinburgh alone.
And what about providing a place for those visitors who want to discover everything that lies behind this marvellous city – not like the People’s Story or Museum of Edinburgh, but a modern interactive interpretation centre.
EWH has been trying to turn the Tron Kirk into such a centre for years, but as far as I know, the Tron has been more or less shut since 2006. It is surely crying out for conversion to a world-class computerised interpretation centre. The one in Bordeaux in France would be a great example to follow – and they’ve got good trams, too.
We also fail in giving tourists value. For instance, the Edinburgh Pass, which has been going for 30 years, is a great way of seeing many of the main attractions in the city except the big one – the Castle. And the pass does not include travel on the buses in the city. How daft is that? Similar “pass” systems elsewhere give tourists much better value as they include travel on decent public transport.
We will always suffer by comparison with the bigger cities because of our lack of an underground – or for that matter overground – railway system. London’s Underground and Paris’s Metro and RER trains are the best anywhere, while the long-running improvements to Rome’s public transport have made the city tolerable, and they were achieved without damaging the image of Italy’s capital. Contrast that with the Edinburgh situation.
I could sum it up in one painful word – trams. But let’s not go there. Instead, our public transport goes on wheels on broken roads, while those visitors who come here by car must wish they had travelled by tank.
For what a state our roads are in. A report last week said Scottish roads were Third World in condition – what an insult to the Third World. In Edinburgh they look more like the terrain you see in those grainy pictures sent back from Mars.
This week the council website lists more than 100 roadworks in Edinburgh and its environs. How did we get to this lunatic situation? The tram works are still devastating, but there are dozens of roadworks across Edinburgh and the Lothians which have nothing to do with the trams.
You only have to look at the state of the roads to see what the problem is – that old Edinburgh failing of a lack of joined-up thinking. For overwhelmingly, roadworks over the years have been caused by the utility companies having to repair or renew gas, electricity and water pipes or telecoms cables. There does not appear to be a single piece of forethought applied to the process to allow the gas and water workers, for instance, to tackle the same stretch of road at the same time.
Add to that the need to repair potholes and resurface carriageways – many of them damaged by utility excavations – and you get traffic chaos. Even our much-vaunted bus lanes are falling apart.
Most if not all the problems such as roads and poor facilities for visitors could be solved by co-operation between companies and organisations. But sadly, Edinburgh and a co- operative approach to finding solutions are mutually exclusive terms.