Business leaders warn Edinburgh city centre is at risk of dying 'slow death' due to complacency over recovery

Edinburgh is being warned that its city centre is at growing risk of "dying a slow death" due to complacency over the future of its festivals, cultural venues, hospitality businesses and international tourism.

The Royal Mile was almost virtually deserted during Edinburgh's peak summer season this year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Royal Mile was almost virtually deserted during Edinburgh's peak summer season this year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Business leaders have called for efforts to secure the “beating heart” of the city to be stepped up after key sectors were “ravaged” by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic since March.

They have warned that Edinburgh is already experiencing the fastest growth of unemployment of any area in Scotland, with the number of people claiming benefits soaring 200 per cent since the start of the pandemic, to more than 19,000.

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Edinburgh launches new tourism campaign to bring back the city’s 'missing buzz'
Edinburgh's normally-thriving tourism industry has been slow to recover from the coronavirus pandemic this year due to the restrictions on hospitality and events. Picture: VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has predicted that it could take cornerstones of the city’s economy, such as tourism, hospitality, events and retail, at least three years to return to pre-coronavirus levels.

Chief executive Liz McAreavey has warned that other sectors which have performed better during the pandemic, such as financial services and technology, now face the prospect of long-term decline if the quality of life on offer in the city in modern times is lost.However Ms McAreavey said: “Edinburgh city centre is now a very different place. Because of coronavirus, it has missed its summer festivals, the high energy culture and the buzz that made it the most visited city outside London with the second highest hotel occupancy levels in the UK.

“July and August this year saw a drop in footfall in the city centre of two million each month, hotel occupancy fell by 50% and is forecast to be as low as 11 per cent in November. Many hotels remain closed since last March and unlikely to open again until the spring of 2021.

"It is likely that pre-covid levels will not return until 2023. Retail, hospitality and attractions are all struggling to survive and the new ‘work from home’ prevalence is further impacting on economic viability.

Edinburgh has only seen a fraction of its usual tourism numbers this year to the coronavirus restrictions. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

"We need a clear idea of the city’s aspirations and ambitions, we need clear sight of its immediate priorities, and what we need to do to rebuild our tourism economy, to ensure our festivals survive and to maintain our place in the world as a leading international city. We cannot be complacent.

"If we are to ‘bounce back better,’ we need start from the best possible place which means protecting businesses and the jobs they provide. We must be bold and optimistic as a city if we are to overcome the many hurdles we face.

"We have to take a long term view that the city will recover, but we cannot be complacent and watch the city centre, the beating heart of Edinburgh, die a slow death because we have been careless with our valuable assets of culture and festivals, our welcoming hospitality and our diversity that results from being an open and international city.”

Ms McAreavey suggested that a new tourism strategy for the city, commits the industry to shift “from driving growth to managing growth,” was flawed because it does not focus on the active promotion of the city.

The blueprint, agreed weeks before the pandemic shut down the city’s tourism industry, places great emphasis on Edinburgh remaining an authentic “living, working city with a reasonable balance between tourism and other economic activity."

There had been growing tensions between tourism bodies and heritage groups over the impact of growing numbers of tourists throughout the year, new hotel developments and annual festivals such as the Fringe and the city's Christmas and Hogmanay festivals. The city was last year named one of the world's major hotspots for “overtourism,” alongside Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Ms McAreavey added: “Pre-coronavirus, there were concerns from some quarters that the city was suffering from ‘overtourism.’ The new tourism strategy focused on sustainable tourism and managing tourism, rather than actively promoting the city.

"Marketing Edinburgh has essentially been closed down as a result of reduced funding from the city council, which was unfortunate timing.

“Some sectors like financial services and technology are weathering the storm reasonably well, but in the long term the challenge might arise even in these sectors if we lose the quality of life Edinburgh is so famous for which is so reliant on the cosmopolitan mix fueled by culture, hospitality and tourism.

“It is a major factor in the appeal of Edinburgh’s vibrant city centre which makes it such a great place to live, work and visit. This in turn is what helps attract both talent and investment.”

Garry Clark, development director at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “In recent years, much of the debate on tourism in Edinburgh has revolved around the perception of ‘over-tourism’ but this year we have seen that the reality of ‘under-tourism’ is much worse.

"Edinburgh needs tourists not just to sustain jobs and businesses, but also because they provide an essential component of the culture and diversity that defines the city.

“There is now an opportunity to look afresh at the tourism future we want for Edinburgh. What kind of tourist do we want to attract in a post-Covid world and how do we go about this? How do we deliver the investment in infrastructure, heritage and the built environment that the city needs? How can large numbers of future tourists and local residents – particularly in the Old Town and city centre – thrive in harmony with each other?"

Christina Sinclair, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “We’re strongly of the view that the core of the new tourism strategy is more relevant than ever in the way it calls for an industry centred on people, place and sustainability.

"Edinburgh’s long-term success as a visitor destination will depend on valuing and conserving our cultural heritage more than ever, as well as strengthening local communities.

"This is the core of the city’s appeal, of which the festivals are a part, as is the extraordinary built heritage, the people, and the fact that Edinburgh is a real, living city.”

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