Edinburgh Festivals: Local Roots to Global Reach
Scotland’s capital and the second most populous city, celebrated for architecture, culture and world-famous festivals
Since the 12th century, Edinburgh Castle has proudly stood atop the dramatic crag of Castle Rock, with the city’s architecturally striking and densely settled Old Town built around it. By the 16th century, Edinburgh had assumed the role of Scotland’s capital and had become a hub of education with the establishment of a university. The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century was significantly influenced by leading thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith. During this period, the neo-classical New Town also took shape, and together with the Old Town, it is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Edinburgh has held a prominent place in the world of literature for centuries, earning it the UNESCO City of Literature designation. It’s the hometown of renowned authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The annual Edinburgh International Book Festival is a major event that brings together authors, readers, and literary enthusiasts from across the globe.
At the heart of Edinburgh’s cultural life are its major festivals, which have been a tradition for over 70 years. The Fringe Festival, one of the world’s largest ticketed events, is a standout on the event calendar, with 2.2 million tickets issued in 2022. While the festival is immensely popular among international visitors, it also retains a strong local following, with 39% of tickets in 2022 sold to residents.
Today, Edinburgh is a city with a population just over 500,000, and it has witnessed a 12% population increase over the past decade. The city’s workforce stands out as one of the most educated in the UK, with 64% of its residents holding a degree-level qualification. Edinburgh’s identity has been significantly shaped by its pivotal roles as Scotland’s business, political, and cultural capital.
Scotland’s visitor attractions received over 30 million visits in 2017, with seven of the top 10 most visited attractions located in Edinburgh, including renowned sites like Edinburgh Castle and the National Museum of Scotland. The city is also home to three National Galleries and the National War Museum.
As an internationally recognised cultural brand, festivals, along with the year-round cultural activities they attract, place this relatively compact city on the global stage. When combined, these festivals represent one of the world’s largest ticketed events, selling over 2.6 million tickets for more than 50,000 events in 2017. A study in 2016 estimated that Edinburgh’s major festivals had an economic impact exceeding £280 million. However, the popularity of these festivals also poses a challenge for the city, as it grapples with a doubling of its population during the main Festival month of August.
The Role of the Policymaker
Managing the success and growth of the tourism sector is one of the city’s primary challenges. In some European countries, uncontrolled tourism growth has negatively impacted residents’ quality of life and the natural environment. Although Edinburgh’s visitor-to-resident ratios currently remain lower than those in these cities, it is essential to take action to manage these pressures. The idea of implementing a Transient Visitor Levy, often referred to as a ‘tourist tax,’ has received local political support, particularly since the 2017 Local Government elections.
Edinburgh also grapples with competing demands for investment and development. Office and hotel developments, along with the job opportunities they create, are concentrated in the city centre. Many of these changes have occurred without input from local communities, and the focus on the city centre has delayed new developments in suburban areas, leaving certain communities lagging behind.
These challenges arise within a broader context of uncertainty, including reduced public spending across the UK and economic instability following the Brexit vote. The latter is especially impactful on EU workers, who are well-represented in Edinburgh’s tourism and hospitality sector.
The City faces a need to invest in its cultural venues infrastructure to meet the needs to a growing population. A number of much needed improvements to key venues have been identified. Without such investment, the city is at risk of diminishing its status as a world-leading cultural centre.
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