Edinburgh urged not to 'kill the goose that lays the golden egg' over the future of its festivals

One of Scotland's leading events experts has warned Edinburgh it risks "killing the goose that lays the golden egg" if its world-leading festivals are scaled back or scattered across the year.

Sunday, 15th August 2021, 4:55 am
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has been staged at Edinburgh Castle esplanade since 1950.

Paul Bush, VisitScotland's director of events, urged Edinburgh to keep using its "natural assets," such as the castle and Princes Street Gardens, as a backdrop for major events, despite criticism over the "festivalisation" of the city.

Mr Bush said it was vital that the festivals remained appealing to international visitors and retained their global “bucket list” status in future.

He also suggested the city should resist the temptation to stagger its festivals throughout the year, despite concerns that parts of the city centre had been struggling to cope with the number of people on the streets when major summer and winter events were on.

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Edinburgh's festival fireworks concert was first staged against the backdrop of the castle in 1982. Picture: Eoin Carey

However Mr Bush said the festivals needed to “work harder” to ensure they reduced their impact on the environment and predicted they would look a lot different from the recording-breaking events that were staged in the city in 2019.

He also said the festivals were likely to be appreciated more in Edinburgh than they were previously after being forced to take a two-year break due to the pandemic and described them as vital for the "economic lifeblood" of the city.

Mr Bush, a leading figure in efforts to bring the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup to Scotland, said: “We've got a very responsible, mature, professional and innovative group of festival directors who are the custodians of these events at the moment.

"I'm really confident that they’re very conscious of their responsibility to the city.

The Proclaimers performing at Edinburgh Castle in 2019. Picture: Scott Louden

"But we also have a responsibility as a nation to ensure that we protect one of our crown jewels.

“In terms of their future, there needs to be negotiation and discussion, and there needs to be an open, frank and honest debate about where the festivals sit within the city.

“But any city in the world would chop your hand off to have the Edinburgh festivals. They are one of Edinburgh's and Scotland's greatest assets. Let's not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Organisers of the festivals have highlighted that the majority of their audiences are drawn from Edinburgh or elsewhere in Scotland. Just seven per cent of the Fringe’s 2019 audience was from overseas, while the figure for the EIF was 11 per cent.

Paul Bush is VisitScotland's director of events. Picture: Chris Watt

Mr Bush said: “You can't divorce major events and tourism. They go hand in hand, they provide economic impact for the city and the country, they provide jobs, which in the current environment is really important, they support businesses and supply chains, and they excite new people.

“If you have an event like Hogmanay and you didn't use the backdrop of the castle it would seem quite strange.

"As a tourist destination that is the call to action, in the same way Sydney uses its harbour bridge. You have to use your natural assets - I think that's here to stay and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.“Edinburgh's festivals are a bucket list event for people around the world. When people come to the UK on holiday in the summer they want to see the festival, even though they're not quite sure what they're coming to.

"I think the festivals will remain innovative. They recognise that hybrid events and reaching more audiences is a strength.“The whole agenda around sustainable tourism and events is the one area where we all have to work harder. I think we will look back in probably around three years time and find a very different environment for the festivals.”

Edinburgh’s festivals attracted an overall audience of 4.4 million in 2019, when more than 25,000 artists and performers took part in around 5000 events.

The revival of events this year was hampered by uncertainty over which Covid restrictions would be in place in the city in August. Many events and venues are keeping physical distancing in place, in line with what the rules were when tickets went on sale.

Around 1500 events are being staged across 185 venues across the city’s five festivals this month.

However events like the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Summer Sessions concerts in Princes Street Gardens are missing, while venues like the Playhouse, the Usher Hall, the King’s Theatre, Leith Theatre and the Queen’s Hall are yet to reopen.

Heritage campaigners want to see the city’s cultural celebration significantly scaled back, urging a ban on events being staged in parks and gardens, a drive to disperse them throughout the city, and the staggering of them across the year.

However Mr Bush said: “The critical mass of the festivals in August is a real strength. It provides variety and opportunity across various genres and niches. People can pick and choose what they want to go and see. They like to have that variety and choice.“I do think that taking events to new audiences and locations is a good thing. There's no reason why that shouldn’t happen in future.“I think now that the festivals are back people might appreciate them more. Last year, they were solely missed in Edinburgh and I think the rest of the world missed them as well."

The Scottish Government has provided around £5.4 million for Edinburgh’s festivals to help them return this year and safeguard their future, including £1 million worth of support for Fringe venue operators and promoters.

Mr Bush added: “It's really important for Scotland that we continue to invest in major events.

"They are an absolutely key driver for communities, for rich cultural heritage and history, and more than anything for our economic lifeblood.

"They give people a sense of ownership, pride and confidence.

"People get a buzz out of going to events and feel good about themselves and what they've seen.

"Consistent long-term investment in the events industry is something Scotland needs to continue to do."