THE street sign pointing to Edinburgh Castle lists its destination in English and Mandarin.
Just yards away, a group of sleepy Chinese tourists tuck into a hotel breakfast of rice porridge and steamed buns, before heading across North Bridge and into the St James Centre’s glass-covered galleria – now a bustling hub of shops and restaurants.
Could this be what the future of Edinburgh’s booming tourism industry looks like? Some experts certainly think so.
Four million visitors flock to the Capital every year, figures show, with an extra 39,000 expected by 2020. Many of these will be from Asia – and China in particular.
Professor Joe Goldblatt, executive director of the International Centre for the Study of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University, insists Edinburgh needs to cater for these new Asian tourists if it wants to get ahead. He suggests installing bilingual road signs and even serving up Chinese-style breakfasts in hotels.
Tourism not only brings major economic benefits, he argues, but social ones too – enriching the city’s cultural and retail offering.
But some fear an over-reliance on tourism is turning Edinburgh’s historic centre into a soulless Disneyland, selling cheap tartan tat to the highest bidder as residents flee for the suburbs.
It’s an argument at the centre of how the Capital sees itself advancing in the coming decades.
“Tourism is one of the most resilient of all industries, because every human being needs leisure,” Prof Goldblatt said. “Leisure is absolutely built into our DNA. It’s one of the best investments a city can make.”
He said extra cash could even be generated through an “audience contribution transfer scheme” – his own take on a tourist tax. This would involve adding £1 onto the price of every ticket sold for a sporting or entertainment event, with the extra cash then pumped back into the city.
Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar has already called on the UK government to change aviation policy so that direct routes can be opened between Scotland and China.
He said: “Edinburgh Airport has grown more in the past three years than we did in the ten years previous and we are on course to handle around 12 million passengers this year.
“The Chinese see Edinburgh as the number one destination in the UK outside of London and we are playing a leading role with the city’s exciting China Ready initiative.”
But Bill Cowan, chair of Old Town Community Council, said the council was “absolutely obsessed with sort-term economic development” at the expense of Edinburgh’s citizens.
He pointed to protests in tourism-heavy cities such as Barcelona and Venice, where residents feel pushed out in favour of hotels and luxury resorts. “If you look at all the other tourism cities – the dream’s over,” he said. “Edinburgh is hell-bent on more tourism dollars, but it’s so short-term. When you go on holiday, you like to see a living city. We don’t want to be Disneyland or Las Vegas. Edinburgh is at crisis point. The residential population of the Old Town is dropping like a stone.”
For their part, city leaders insist the key to the future lies in improving the quality of attractions, making the city’s infrastructure more visitor-friendly and creating new destinations – such as Edinburgh St James.
Councillor Gavin Barrie, the city’s economy leader, said: “We also want to see more opportunities for career progression through more and better quality jobs. The links between the city and our neighbours is another area for development, with a stronger offer, for example, for cruise visitors, and plans to ensure visitors make the most of the whole city region. This is one of the reasons why projects such as the Border railway and other transport development are so important. We strongly support Edinburgh Airports plans for new route development, and need to make sure the city continues to be one of the most welcoming anywhere in the world.
“Lastly, without new sources of funding, the sustainability of the sector will be challenged, which is why we want to work with the Scottish Government to deliver new income streams to support growth at no cost to the taxpayer.”