Edinburgh has never been so popular, with overseas visitor numbers increasing by 50% in the last six years. For those of us lucky enough to live here all year round, it is a pleasure to welcome visitors and be reminded, through fresh eyes, just how astonishing our city is. The backdrop of the castle and Arthur’s Seat. The cool shady green spaces in the midst of the city. The fun of the festival fringe.
Many Edinburgh residents relish being able to experience other cultures too, and will have benefited from travelling to the great European cities like Paris, Rome, Barcelona or Berlin and further afield.
So far so good. But when does tourism overspill? Some of the world’s most wonderful places, from Machu Picchu to Venice have been listed as being at risk because of “over-tourism”. A small compact city like Edinburgh clearly struggles during August. The rapid explosion of Airbnb has had an incredibly damaging effect when entire homes are taken out of residential use and used full-time for holiday lets, reducing homes which are available and hollowing out our city centre.
And, looming over all of that is the climate emergency. Over the next decade, dramatic changes are needed, globally, to limit the devastating impacts of a warming planet. No-one credible disputes that. The only debate is about how to change. And a greater onus lies on the wealthiest countries to do most to change.
That includes mass tourism too. The over-riding urgency of becoming zero-carbon by 2030 is simply not consistent with mass tourism as it currently operates. With bitter irony, some tourism icons are themselves already doomed by climate breakdown, from the magnificent Skara Brae site in Orkney to the coral wonders of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
What does that mean for tourism here? How do we retain Edinburgh’s reputation as an outward-looking, welcoming, international city but do so within the carrying capacity of both the planet and the city itself?
A small part of the answer lies in the prospect of a transient visitor levy, or “tourist tax” which allows the council to raise additional income for services which help increase the city’s capacity to cope. But, while that additional income is useful, it is fairly modest (forecast to raise around £12-15m per year). And it is based on business-as-usual tourism or even on continued growth. That is, quite literally, not sustainable.
Tourism is an important part of the city economy. But it is a fickle industry as well, so a new approach to tourism is about building resilience for future change as well as responding to the scale of challenge in the climate emergency.
That’s about how people travel here and what they do when here: where they stay; how they move around, what they buy.
So for the 60% of Edinburgh visitors who come from within the UK: train or coach should be the norm, and even for our visitors from the nearest parts of Europe, with the right investment in high speed rail and tight integration of Edinburgh with the other Eurostar destination cities. Proper regulation, planning controls and taxation over holiday lets should take the pressure off the flats and houses which are desperately needed for residents. Easy use of bus, tram and hire bikes should avoid adding to the city’s congestion and air pollution woes. And the spending experience of visitors could be switched towards local Scottish produce like our fantastic food and drink, arts and crafts.
Staying longer, taking time to explore, and fully experiencing the country may not sit well with bucket-list short breaks but it will result in richer memories.
All of this and much more would get close to what “Eco-tourism” should actually mean – far much more than declining the daily change of towels in a hotel room. If we get it right, it will put Edinburgh out in front and enable us to welcome visitors for many years to come.