Edinburgh urged to ensure festivals revival to help city recover from 2020 'catastrophe'

Edinburgh has been urged to ensure its world-leading festivals bounce back fully in 2021 to help the city's tourism industry recovery from the "catastrophe" of 2020.

Business leaders want to see the city’s flagship events make a full comeback after they all fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic – amid fears up to 120,000 jobs are at stake due to the crisis in the previously-booming tourism industry.

They have hit back at critics who have suggested the city should scale back some events to help tackle complaints about “overtourism”.

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Heritage groups have demanded a rethink of how events and festivals are staged in Edinburgh amid growing concern about their environmental impact.

A recent dossier by the Cockburn Association warned that Edinburgh’s “branding” as a destination based on festivals and international tourism was “undermining its identity and uniqueness”.

However, the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has warned the festivals are “intrinsically linked” to the economy, as they “put Edinburgh on the world stage and key to attracting visitors, investors, new talent and entrepreneurs”.

The Edinburgh Hotels Association has recalled how the Scottish capital was previously an “empty city” over the winter before the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals were instigated in the 1990s.

The six-week winter festivals season has been worth more than £110 million to the economy in recent years.

Chamber chief executive Liz McAreavey said: “We’re internationally renowned for delivering the best cultural summer festivals and the best Hogmanay celebrations in the world.

“The cancellation of our festivals has resulted in performers losing the chance to launch their careers, together with significant job losses. We’re seeing record business failure in these sectors, with worse to come. The festivals and the economy of Edinburgh are intrinsically linked. How will these jobs be replaced?

“Our festivals create a positive image of Edinburgh that differentiates us from being just another city.

"Everyone needs to get behind this unique offering and celebrate the fantastic contribution they’ve made to our cultural well-being, the economy and inclusion.”

More than three million people watched the online incarnation of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations.
More than three million people watched the online incarnation of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations.

Hotels association spokesman Russell Imrie said: “Edinburgh is an established tourism destination and has built a brand reputation over decades as a place where global travellers want to visit.

"The global recognition and the destination ‘brand’ that Edinburgh has cannot be switched off or diluted in the short term. Tourism is in the DNA of Edinburgh.

"We definitely need to build back because the city needs a thriving industry all year. The winter festivals fill what only 20 years ago was an empty city as this time of year.

"Our city has been hugely successful in developing a year round tourism industry and it should not be knocked or accused of creating over-tourism.

The normally thronged Victoria Street was deserted on Hogmanay after the Scottish Government and the police urged people to celebrate at home. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

"Promoting Edinburgh’s Hogmanay globally benefits not just Edinburgh but the whole of Scotland as it raises the profile of the country as a destination. Every global tourism destination has its iconic offering and Hogmanay is one of Scotland’s.”

Mr Imrie said Edinburgh would need to “fill the gap” on Princes Street between two major developments due to be unveiled in 2021 – the new St James quarter in the east end and the Johnnie Walker whisky centre in the west end.

He also suggested that the city’s festivals and events should “gently evolve to remain relevant to tomorrow’s traveller and sympathetic to city residents” in future years.”

Mr Imrie added: “The end of the year could be seen as a portal through which we move and leave the catastrophe of 2020 behind.

"We’ve all had to learn to do many things differently in 2020 and this change will also affect tourism.

"It can be an opportunity to focus on a high-quality, driven arts and culture future. Authenticity will be vital.”

All of the live events in Edinburgh's three-day Hogmanay festival were called off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

Cockburn Association chair Cliff Hague said: "The festivals project Edinburgh and bring in tourists, but tourist numbers should not be the the key performance indicator for cultural festivals.

"Also, the public sector and insurance and financial services are more important to Edinburgh's economy than tourism and festivals.

"Similarly, locked down Edinburgh residents and e-shopping are the prime reason why city centre footfall has fallen.

"Experts say that we will have to live with increasing risks of new viruses. Is it sensible to prioritise the planning and development of the city for the tourism sector, which we now know is exceptionally vulnerable to such shocks?”

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