Is Edinburgh’s Lifeblood its Poison?

Walking up the slope from the platforms of Waverley Station for the first time is forever etched into my memory. Emerging into the bright summer light onto Waverley Bridge and looking out directly over Princes Street Gardens and the Castle towering over the city in the distance. A sea of green channeled by steep volcanic cliffs on one side and Georgian elegance on the other. The city was just breathtaking. It had been a slim possibility of finding a place I could pursue my interests while remaining close to a girlfriend who was aiming to attend St Andrews University. What I found was a life long love affair, the first and only place I ever felt was home. For a variety of reasons I would repeatedly leave and return to the city but every time I was away it hurt. Over the years I also watched the city change and in some ways not entirely for the better.

For some time now there has been an increasing grumble coming from locals, especially those that have grown up in the city, about the changes tourism has brought. For most of that time those complaints have been dismissed as overly exaggerated nimbyism. Even I was somewhat dismissive, considering most of the change to just be a natural course of city life. Then came a moment when someone I knew, who wasn’t an Edinburgh resident, described the city centre as, “a very beautiful theme park,” a description that hurt with its truth. That was the description I’d been reluctant to give my growing unease.

Of course this is a deeply inadequate description of the city as a whole but it was absolutely a description of the city centre. A beautiful, historic place full of tourists and barely a local in sight. Increasingly soulless and empty, filled with tat shops and tourist targeted chains and establishments.

On the whole locals simply pass through to get to where they need to go, or avoid the centre entirely, especially the Old Town. The locals that find themselves there regularly are often like me, taking photographs and video for social media. Some actually live in the Old Town, in the closes, that so often become zoo exhibits.

Yet much of this was going unnoticed, unrecognised. That was until early 2020.

As the city streets emptied, tourism largely dried up, some even chose to leave the city, and the locals found themselves in a new world. A city that was entirely theirs. Although many began to miss some of the buzz that tourism brought there were definite upsides to the lack of tourism. Many small apartments that were usually AirBnB’s went on the rental market and average rental prices in Edinburgh lowered to something resembling a reasonable rate. As shops and restaurants began to open up again the more locally focused, usually independent, places began to win out. The character of the city began to resemble a little of the city I’d originally fallen in love with years ago. It was as though Edinburgh had begun to wake from a coma and began remembering who it was again.

To me this was a perfect demonstration of the paradox of tourism. That as tourist numbers increase and the demand for more tourist industry services increases, the very reason the tourists were originally coming gets crushed. At some point you have to wonder why the tourists are still coming, is it really now just like a visit to Disneyland? Is it a place to go because so many other people seem to go there?

The problem is hardly unique to Edinburgh. Just ask people from Venice, Valencia, or Phuket and many other places around the world. There is also no single reason or easy answer because the truth is we all love that people want to come and experience our beloved home. We want to share the things we adore. Yet, we also want there to be a more sustainable way of doing things.

I am personally missing travel. I had much planned before the pandemic. Yet the whole thing has made me reassess many considerations. I’ve travelled locally much more than I think I ever have, and I never shied away from exploring my own home. I’ve also done it much more slowly, stayed for longer and taken more time to investigate and learn. To interact with the local community and understand them.

This has now become my mantra, my guiding principle. This has begun to be referred to as slow travel. It used to be the case that taking time was impossible for most people due to the constraints of work. For a significant proportion of people, especially those that can actually afford big trips abroad, the pandemic has shown this to be no longer relevant. Working remotely is not only possible for many but often beneficial to both employee and employer.

Perhaps now people can take their time and get to love what we love, the way we love it. I know I’m going to try.

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A J Merron

A J Merron

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I’m a writer, photographer and documentarian based in Scotland.