Susan Dalgety: Edinburgh is at risk of becoming '˜Venice of the North'

Edinburgh has always been known as the Athens of the North, but perhaps Venice would be more accurate comparison these days.

Tuesday, 13th March 2018, 6:00 am
Tourists from all over the world flock to Venice, so much so that local Venetians are leaving in their thousands (Picture: AFP/Getty)

Once known by its residents as Le Serenissima, the most serene, today the Italian city often resembles a battleground, as hordes of tourists threaten to overwhelm its delicate infrastructure, and local people flee the chaos.

At the last count there were 28 million visitors a year to the city, and at the height of the season, cruise ships disgorge 44,000 people each day into St Mark’s Square.

The heart of Venice was once home to 175,000 people, now there are only 55,000 people living there.

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Around 2,000 leave each year, fed up of daily skirmishes with Japanese school girls and their selfie-sticks.

And it is impossible to rent a home in Venice, as every conceivable space is now advertised on Airbnb as a holiday let.

Tomorrow, the highly respected Cockburn Association hosts an event to discuss whether Edinburgh could be facing the same fate.

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The numbers speak for themselves. There were 6,722 short-term lets in Edinburgh available on Airbnb in 2016. A year later that had jumped, by 54 per cent, to 9,638.

If you own a spare city centre property – and you would be surprised how many people do – the numbers add up. You can earn a month’s rent in one week in May. In August, you can double your money. Triple it, if you have no scruples.

Around four million people visit Edinburgh each year, spending 14.6 million nights here. They need a lot of beds.

But so do the people of Edinburgh. Unlike Venice, the city is growing. Recent forecasts suggest that the population is set to increase by 5,000 people each year.

Where are our nurses, teachers and retail staff going to live if all the city’s empty homes are rented out to French tourists?

Don’t get me wrong. I love tourists. I spend as much time as I can being one. And Edinburgh is a much livelier city than it was when I moved here in the late 1970s.

In those dark days, the city centre was empty by six o’clock every night. During the day, the only accents you heard on the streets were cut-glass Morningside or Broomhouse banter. Everyone was white.

Today, spend ten minutes on Princes Street at any time of day, and you will encounter the world. Edinburgh, like Venice, is a must-see city for everyone, from Spanish backpackers to South Korean pensioners.

Tourists spend a mind-boggling £1.3 billion a year in Edinburgh, supporting tens of thousands of jobs in hospitality, retail and recreation.

Edinburgh needs its tourists, but is there a limit to the numbers our ancient city can handle?

In Venice, many local residents think that tourist numbers should be capped, and the city should get back to its roots, focusing on maritime and scientific research.

Edinburgh is a long way off from that drastic measure, but the warning signs are already here, and it is not just the growth in short-term rentals.

The city centre is now so full in August that local residents struggle to live a normal life, forced to do battle with hordes of excited festival-goers and assorted street performers every time they step out their front door.

And thanks to the success of the Christmas and New Year festivals, December is rapidly becoming just as congested.

It is entirely feasible to imagine, not too far into the future, the heart of Edinburgh as a theme park open only to tourists, while the rest of us live miles away, on the edge of our city.

Impossible? Vedremo.