It is August, meaning Edinburgh’s festival season is now in full swing. The city’s population more than doubles this month as millions of tourists and tens of thousands of performers descend upon the Scottish capital for the thousands of unique shows on offer. Around 3 million tickets were sold for last year’s Fringe alone, not counting the many other simultaneously occurring festivals.
The celebrations began as a radical freewheeling experiment to promote postwar international solidarity, attempting to bring creative people from around the globe together. Yet it has slowly become corporatszed to the point where a handful of companies with questionable ethical practices, such as Underbelly, have come to dominate, setting the terms and conditions of the Festival, making giant fortunes in the process, even as entertainers lose money.
Putting on a show is generally a losing proposition for artists and even some smaller venues. There are many horror stories; for instance, comedian Barry Fearns revealed how performing at the Festival left him £35,000 in debt and eventually bankrupt. Even selling out a venue does not ensure breaking even. Yet creative people from all over the world continue to come in the hopes of being spotted and breaking into the big time.
While these companies may argue they bring benefits to the local economy in the form of hospitality jobs, surprisingly few of the Festival’s workers are actually being paid, and must toil under “shameful” conditions and are “expected to work to the point of exhaustion”, according to a recent report. The people pulling those £6 pints at 2a.m. may not be even being paid for it. Someone is profiting greatly, but it is evidently not the workers or performers.
Nor is it the residents, who have seen their city simultaneously cheapened and become more expensive due to overtourism. Cut-price chain hotels have controversially set up new breezeblock buildings in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage site. There are now over 10,000 AirBnB properties in the relatively small city, four times the concentration of London or Paris. These are primarily located in the historic city centre, as landlords have realised it is far more profitable to gouge tourists and performers than rent to locals. An under-regulated buy-to-let market allows companies to snap up properties as soon as they come on the market knowing they can make huge profits on AirBnB. As a result Edinburgh’s house prices and rents have ballooned as rich tourists in short-term rentals crowd locals out. Those that work in the city are forced out of town to buy or tread water paying increasingly higher rents.
Conservation groups have warned that the Old Town is becoming a “tourist ghetto”; the avalanche of indistinguishable cheap touristic “tartan tat” shops compound the problem and make it extremely difficult to live there permanently. Performers too, fear rising rents are threatening the Fringe’s future and turning it into an elitist event.
Furthermore, the big festival giants have been allowed to privatise or seal-off many of Edinburgh’s most iconic and picturesque parks or public areas for profit. George Square, Bristo Square, Castlehill, Charlotte Square and parts of the Meadows are all cordoned off throughout August. Local Old Town residents are continually forced into pleading with lines of surly, newly arrived G4S security guards just for access to the streets where they live or work.
Worse still, it often takes until the following spring for the grass surfaces to be relayed and recover from the pounding that turns the beautiful spaces into something resembling a particularly wet Glastonbury. The Festival also puts undue strain on public services and leaves the city covered with litter for days or even weeks afterwards. Comfortably profiting, the corporate giants leave the party, leaving the locals to deal with the collective hangover in September.
The Festival is still a unique, magical event that brings people from all over the world to Scotland’s capital. However, the slow creep of corporations branding and monetising aspects of it is eating it from within. The rampant profiteering is also suffocating the city, negatively impacting year round residents.
Venice was turned into a lifeless museum city through unregulated free-for-all tourism. We must not allow the same thing to happen to Edinburgh.
Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacLeod) is an Edinburgh native and a journalist at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
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