Former culture chief blames heritage status for Edinburgh becoming ‘overwhelmed’ with visitors

Edinburgh’s world heritage status was to blame for the city’s pre-Covid overtourism problems rather than the growing audiences for its festivals, according to a former city council culture chief.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Thursday, 26th August 2021, 8:49 am

Lynne Halfpenny, the council’s director of culture until earlier this year, dismissed suggestions the people of Edinburgh had fallen out of love with festivals as “nonsense” during Wednesday’s summit called to help shape the future of the city’s major cultural events.

She insisted the Old Town and the Royal Mile had become overwhelmed with visitors and was seen as a “bucket list” destination because of Edinburgh’s Unesco designation and not its ‘festival city’ status.

Ms Halfpenny said the festivals had become caught up in a “polarised debate” about their impact on the city when the focus should instead be on how to manage visitor numbers to the World Heritage Site when the city’s tourism industry recovered.

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The summit was staged against a backdrop of debate over efforts to revive the city’s summer festivals, which attracted a record audience of more than 4.4 million in 2019.

The festivals were linked with Edinburgh being name one of the world’s overtourism hotspots, alongside Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Rome. Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association have raised concerns about their impact on the environment, amid demands for curbs on the “festivalisation” of the city by banning long-standing events and sites.

Organisers of the city’s major events attended the summit – Rediscovering Our Festival City – which was hosted by the book festival at its new home at Edinburgh College of Art.

Edinburgh International Book Festival director Nick Barley said: “Around the world Edinburgh is regarded as an extraordinary phenomenon and a success story 75 years old because of the quality of its festivals and what that’s done for the reputation of the city. If you speak to people in the city, of course, the picture is more mixed.

Edinburgh was named last year as a hotspot for overtourism in 2019. Picture: Ian Georgeson

"I think it’s worth remembering that the festivals became so successful primarily because of the appetite of the citizens of this city.

"Where did that appetite come from, what sustained it and where did we – somewhere in the last few years – lose touch with the idea of ourselves as a festival city? How can we rediscover that mood and appetite? How can we fall back in love with that idea again?”

However, Ms Halfpenny, who has more than 35 years of experience in Scotland’s cultural sector, said: “I don’t agree that we’ve fallen out of love with our festivals. I think that’s absolute nonsense.

"This city adores its festivals and the world adores Edinburgh and its festivals. The festivals are the success story here. We should stop kicking ourselves.

More than 2.2 million people visited Edinburgh Castle in 2019.

“I don’t think World Heritage Site status has done us any good at all in Edinburgh. I actually think that’s one of the issues we need to have a broader discussion about.

“I know, having lived in this city since 1981, the numbers of people coming to Edinburgh have probably escalated because we’re now on the bucket list.

"Everybody wants to come to Unesco World Heritage sites and our castle in Edinburgh is the most visited in Scotland. Why is that? It's because Edinburgh is a World Heritage Site, not because it’s a ‘festival city’.

“If we’re talking about recovery going forward and we’re going to moderate the impact of being a World Heritage Site, we’re going to have to manage how we deal with audiences coming to see our heritage. The issue for me is more about that.

Shona the Musical Choir have been among the acts performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Jess Shurte

“The overwhelming of the city was not down to the festivals. It was overwhelmed by people coming to see heritage buildings, the Royal Mile and the Old Town.”

Former city council leader Donald Anderson pleaded for a calmer public debate over the future of the festivals, saying it had recently descended into “rancour and hostility”.

He said: “Make no mistake, the fact is Edinburgh residents love the festivals.

“The council asks residents every couple of years whether they think the festivals make Edinburgh a better place to live – 72 per cent of residents answered yes in the last survey.

"I’m pained by the debate that takes place at times. The festivals make as big a contribution and are as important to Edinburgh as its buildings.

“There are hardly any buildings on the at-risk register. That’s in no small measure down to the economic vibrancy that the festivals bring to Edinburgh.

Lynne Halfpenny was director of culture at Edinburgh City Council.

"We need to bring sides together rather than have the debate conducted over social media, because it is not helpful and doesn’t actually solve the problem or debate the issues properly.”

Ahead of this year’s festivals getting underway, Cliff Hague, chair of the Cockburn Association, declared that “the future of Scotland’s capital will be at stake” once the Covid crisis is overcome, insisting there was already pressure to get “back to normal” as soon as possible.

He told the summit: “The growth issue needs to be linked with austerity in pushing. The two go together in pushing culture towards the events sector.

“Several of the consequences, I readily admit, were not designed by the cultural sector, but you have to extrapolate from the way that policy was made and delivered to see the results, such as the escalation of Airbnb for example. It has clearly been a virus within Edinburgh in how rapidly it emptied out the Old Town. The cultural sector was tangential to that, but it was a factor, unfortunately.”

The summit was staged days after a new long-term vision for the Edinburgh festivals pledged that there will be no going back to the pre-pandemic “status quo” under under a drive to reduce their impact on the environment, encourage “responsible” tourism and ensure people working on events are treated better.

The 2030 vision, created by Festivals Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Festivals Forum, commits organisers to strike a better “balance,” help restore a healthy economy in Edinburgh and improve the quality of life of people in the city.

Backed by the key funders of the festivals, it includes a firm pledge to turn Edinburgh into a beacon of “how a world-leading sustainable festival city could look and feel by the year 2030.”

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy told the summit: "The whole idea of a moment for reflection, to pause, breathe and think, has been taken so seriously by everyone across the Fringe landscape.

“I’ve not heard a single person say ‘we want to get back to normal.’ Everybody wants to take this as a moment to rethink and to reflect.”

Fringe Society chair Benny Higgins said: “There’s great love for the festivals in Edinburgh. We shouldn’t forget that.

"The fact there’s perhaps at times a noisy opposition, whether on social media or otherwise, should not be treated as representative of the broader picture.

"We need to make sure culture doesn’t feel shame in contributing to economic growth and a resilient, robust economy.

"We also want to create a different kind of society post-Covid, one that is fairer. The pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated inequalities. We have a really important role to play.”

International Festival director Fergus Linehan said: “A lot of the language and emphasis around growth did not come from anything particularly strategic within the cultural sector. It came from imperatives within government.

"I don’t think any of us got into these because we were interested in economic growth, but it became the primary thing that got heads nodding around the Cabinet table.

"Events are incredibly attractive to governments. They don’t have to build anything or create permanent employment.

"We shouldn’t under-estimate how much economic growth is going to be a factor in the coming years. The economic argument is still the thing that lands.

"The growth question is one that we really need to watch very carefully because I don’t think it is behind us yet.”

Kate Wimpress, director of the North Edinburgh Arts centre, said: “In our understandable rush to get back to the comfort of the usual, we really can’t let complacency creep back in.

"The before just wasn’t good enough for very many. I’m still hopeful that we can use this time to enforce change and really upset the ‘it’s always been done that way mindset’ and to make better the hard choices that protect those at the edge.

"To reap the very best from our festival city, we need to hear from – and keep hearing from – a wide range of voices to assess and address the many complexities and competing agendas.

"We need to focus on the small scale, the local, the personal, the connected and the imperfect.”