I bloody love Edinburgh. It’s why I’ve lived here for 15 years. I fell in love with the city when I visited as a tourist in 2003. I love it when people I follow on social media visit the city for the first time and post photos in awe at the beauty and idiosyncrasies of this wonderful, unique city. It rekindles that love in me.
Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in the city the number of tourists visiting the city has increased dramatically all year round. This has, quite rightly, led to debates about what impact this is having on the city. Tourism was presented solely as an economic benefit to the city, bringing in money and creating jobs and opportunities. Now the costs of tourism are being highlighted and the debate about the Hotel Tax in Edinburgh began to suggest that the industry does not provide sufficient social economic benefit to outweigh its social costs. I support such a levy wholeheartedly and I found the hoteliers’ arguments that it would put off visitors absolutely laughable. This would suggest a truly incredibly elasticity for demand for tourism in the city. And, as I once ruminated on Twitter, the whole reason cities like Edinburgh are tourist hotspots is they have monopolistic qualities – there is only one Edinburgh. I’m not going to visit Birmingham just because Venice has a hotel tax and Birmingham has more canals. And tourists are not going to flock to stay in Stirling instead of Edinburgh, just because it’s got a castle in the middle of it.
The negative impacts of tourism on Edinburgh are becoming a much greater part of public discussion in the city due to the explosive growth of Air BnB, and the number of flats in the city shifting from the private-rented sector to short-term lets. It does seem there is some evidence that this is happening, and anecdotally I know it’s more difficult than ever the get a PRS flat in the city.
In many ways I’m very glad this debate is happening. I’ve recognised for some time that Edinburgh needs a proper tourism strategy that isn’t just about encouraging more tourists, growing the industry, and ensuring tourists have a great time, but is rather about balancing that growth with the sustainability of the wider city and the experience of longer-term residents.
What I don’t like, increasingly, is the way this debate is happening. Basically, this debate is increasingly racist and xenophobic and portrays Edinburgh as being like Royston Vasey – a local city for local people (although in my case, the Royston Vasey slogan of “You’ll Never Leave” does seem to apply). What is most concerning to me, is this racist dog-whistling is increasingly coming from heritage organisations.
The most egregious recent case of this, which caused me to write this blog post, was the reporting of a report carried out by Edinburgh World Heritage on the damage of tourism to the Old Town, in The Scotsman on 25 July 2019. The news article stated: “Surveys of more than 500 visitors found they were far more likely to feel “surrounded by foreigners” than “hear Scottish accents” on the Royal Mile.” The same is repeated in the EWH press release and their report (p.9). I’m sorry, but as an Edinburgher without a Scottish accent, funnily enough I find it deeply offensive that I’m not seen to be an “authentic” part of the Royal Mile by the EWH. The last time I noted that foreign accents were talked about in such a way in the press was when Nigel Farage was lambasted for saying he felt uncomfortable hearing foreign languages.
Edinburgh’s civic association, The Cockburn Association, is also quite bad at broadcasting similar views through its twitter activity. On numerous occasions this year I have sub-tweeted (for fear of a Twitter pile-on) when it has re-Tweeted people who are, in the most thinly veiled way, advocating for an Edinburgh that is only for white people, born here, who speak with a “local” accent (of course, anyone who knows the city knows there’s a BIG difference between the local accents of Leith and Wester Hailes and the local accents of Trinity and Morningside).
This xenophobia becomes even more of a problem for me when it spills over into other development controversies in the city. Here I see, with an alarming increase, a coalition between a xenophobic heritage lobby that wants to preserve everything, and a green/left lobby that believes everything that is local is good. Therefore, a proposed development is opposed, and in the opposition the developers’ nationality becomes a key feature. Why? Do you not want “them” making money in “our” city?
With four universities in Edinburgh, this xenophobia also emerges in debates about the development of student accommodation. Again, Edinburgh is seeing a massive expansion of private sector student accommodation. This has problems that could be better managed, in particular the poor quality of much of the building which means it cannot be used for anything else if the market for international study collapses. The biggest issue for me is I see it as a way developers can bring sites to the market which are economically viable and side-step requirements to build affordable housing, which they’d have to do if it was a residential development. International students are also brilliant for the city – they bring their expertise and skills to the city. If they could, I’m sure many would stay after they’d completed their studies, boosting the economy further. They help fund our universities.
Yet in the opposition to student development we see people explicitly saying that their issue is that this is accommodation for wealthy international students. We wouldn’t mind if it was accommodation for local students.
So, I ask you, please do keep debating the impact of tourists and other transient visitors on our city. But please don’t make these debates racist and xenophobic. Do not “other” these people, and recognise the massive diversity of the long-term residents of the city. The problems Edinburgh is facing due to these transient visitors are the root of global and national issues that the city can respond to the best it can. It needs to respond better and we need citizens to engage in the debate about what this response looks like. But we cannot continue blaming the “other” for this. Edinburgh is, and should be, an international city for everyone.